Sylvester Leaks, universally known as Syl, was born in Macon, Georgia on August 11, 1927. While still attending school, he worked several jobs to help support his grandmother, Ella Williams, who was his primary parental figure. Syl would refer to her and Lucy Roundfield, his fourth grade teacher, as two of the earliest major influences on his life.
In his own words Leaks, would tell that, as a young man, he was a “… shoe shine boy and seller of scrap iron, cotton picker and peanut shaker, com shucker and ice man, chicken plucker and fish scaler.” Somewhere in the parcel of jobs that Syl held was employment by one of Macon’s leading black entrepreneurs as an assistant. This now unknown gentleman was the source of inspiration for Sylvester’s lifelong sartorial splendor. Leaks, who once wore a suit to the beach, was known for his natty ways.
When Leaks graduated high school, he joined the u.S. Army and began another lifelong pursuit: travel. The service took him to Japan and the Philippines. As a soldier, he took a train from Georgia to Washington State; Leaks loved to tell stories about the things that he’d seen on this trip. Life later took him to Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, London, Ecuador, Mexico and all fifty of the United States.
New York City was the first destination when Leaks left the army in 1947. From the day he arrived until his death, New York was home. Leaks, like so many other renaissance men held a day job but by night he was, indeed, a man about town. Leaks, however, was no dandy looking for a date. At night he attended Baruch College; he danced with the Sierra Leone dance troupe of Asa Data Dafora; he was a member of the Harlem Writer’s Guild; he was an actor (and President) in the Elks Community Theater.
The year 1960 would see several changes in Leak’s life. Because of his friendship with Malcolm X, he became editor of the Nation ofIslam newspaper “Muhammad Speaks.” He married the former Norma Nelson. This union would produce a son, Gideon, in 1963. Besides his duties at Muhammad Speaks, Leaks also continued writing independently, publishing book reviews, short stories and critical analyses. Leaks also began to promote plays and musicals on and off Broadway. His idea was to introduce blacks to Broadway using church groups as a source of customers for his clients. His friendship with the thespian couple, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee provided him with one of his first big clients, the play “Purlieu Victorious.” Specializing in productions with African – American themes and casts, Leaks continued to promote plays well into the seventies and was associated with such noted shows as “Raisin”, “The Wiz”, “Pippin”, “Guys and Dolls”,”Short Eyes”, and “For Colored Girls…”
In 1965, disenchanted with the Nation of Islam; perceiving them as complicit in the assassination of Malcolm X, Leaks moved his family to Brooklyn from Harlem. There he became the Director of Youth In Action, a non-profit organization that sought to educate Brooklyn youths in African – American history and culture. Leaks also taught and continued to write. Leaks left Youth in Action to become Director of Public Information for Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in 1970. At “Restoration,” Leaks was influential in the founding of the Billie Holiday Theatre, which he named. The theatre is still operating.
The seventies saw Sylvester Leaks in full bloom. He finished his play “Trouble, Blues, and Trouble” which, as a short story, had been published in the legendary “Best Short Stories by Negro Writers” edited by Langston Hughes. His poem “Talking about Harlem” has been translated into thirty-two different languages including Swahili, Chinese, and Russian. He completed a movie script, “My God, My God is Dead.” He also completed the biography of his friend, Malcolm X. He became active in Brooklyn politics and won a seat on the District 17 Community School Board which he held for close to thirty years. He founded the Central Brooklyn Urban Development Corporation, a company that developed, owned, and managed apartment buildings for low-income tenants. Most importantly, he met and began the most significant love relationship of his life, one thirty years long, with the woman who would later become his wife, Scottie Owings.
The foundation of Leaks’ life was set. For the rest of his life, he continued to be involved in politics consulting a generation of Brooklyn politicians. As President of the school board, he was responsible for the construction of at least four new schools and the education of hundreds of thousands of children. He was also a respected consultant to many businessmen, notably Don King, the impresario. Sylvester Leaks helped thousands of people in ways large and small yet he never asked for anything except that those he helped, help others so that the African-American community that he loved so much would prosper.
The last decade of his life saw Leaks return full time to his passion: writing and the research of African and African-American history. When one passed by his house on any given late night, the lights in his home office would be burning bright. If you listened carefully you could hear the sounds of an ancient typewriter. Hard at work was Sylvester Leaks who while being so many things would describe himself as a writer and historian. After a short illness, Sylvester Leaks, the self-described “po’ boy from Georgia” traveled from this life on October 21, 2006. In his ways, in his generosity, in his love of his people, he was anything but poor. He may have been the richest man most of us will ever know.