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North Salem's Cyril DeGrasse Tyson, Sociologist, Educator, Activist, 89

Cyril DeGrasse Tyson
Cyril DeGrasse Tyson Photo Credit: Contributed

Cyril DeGrasse Tyson, a leading figure in the development of urban social policy in New York City, and who devoted his life to the empowerment of all those who were disenfranchised, died at his home in North Salem, N.Y., on Thursday, Dec. 29. He was 89.

His wife of 64 years, Sunchita Feliciano Tyson, confirmed that he died after battling a series of strokes.

Born in New York City in 1927 to immigrant parents from the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, he embarked on his career in public service after earning a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from St. Francis College in Brooklyn and a master’s degree in Social Service from Columbia University.

During the late 1960s, at a time of extreme turbulence in the Nation’s urban centers, he held a number of positions in New York City government agencies that specifically empowered communities that for many other cities would become powderkegs of unrest. These positions included deputy administrator of New York City’s Human Resources Administration and commissioner of the Manpower and Career Development Agency under Mayor John V. Lindsay.

In 1963, prior to those City Hall appointments, Tyson became the project director of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU) in Central Harlem, an organization that worked to increase opportunities for young people who lived in Harlem. He later became the executive director of HARYOU-ACT (Associated Community Teams), a federal program established as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” that worked to increase opportunities in education and employment for young blacks in Harlem.

Tyson chronicled the study and implementation of HARYOU-ACT in his book “Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change.” He later authored three more books about his experiences working with urban poverty and manpower programs. *

Also in 1963, Tyson joined with baseball great Jackie Robinson, Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr., businessman J. Bruce Llewellyn, city and civil rights leader Robert J. Mangum, and future New York Mayor David Dinkins to found “One Hundred Black Men Inc.”, an organization that a half-century later still enhances social and economic role models as well as opportunities for minorities.

Tyson subsequently was executive director of the United Community Corporation in Newark, N.J., administering federal and municipal funding on behalf of Newark’s Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1967, he was part of a study mission organized by the American Jewish Committee to observe Israel’s efforts toward cultural, educational and vocational integration of diverse populations, ranging from European Jews to Bedouin tribesman to Jews of the African Mellah.

The mission assessed the applicability of Israel’s techniques to solving poverty and cultural lag in the United States.

In 1970, Tyson, along with future President Gerald Ford, was among the first class of appointed Fellows at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where he did research and taught seminars on urban manpower-development strategies.

During the 1970s, Tyson was co-founder of Optimum Computer Systems, a management consulting company that provided computer software design, research and development, and organizational analysis to business and civic clients.

Later, he was vice president of public and community affairs for the City College of New York, where among other milestones, he co-directed a multi-agency workshop on technology development in Nigeria.

Tyson also was assistant director for community and intergovernmental relations for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a loaned executive to City University of New York’s Institute for Transportation Systems, where he organized a consortium of higher education institutions into a planning and policy board of the

Transportation Research Center and led a public-private partnership to make policy recommendations on critical transportation issues in the tri-state region.

In 1976, his eminence Terence Cardinal Cooke, Archdiocese of New York, established the Office of Black Ministry and appointed Tyson as a commissioner along with other prominent black Catholics in law, politics, journalism, community action.

Tyson was also a past board member of the National Catholic Inter-Racial Council.

In high school and college, Mr. Tyson was a star athlete in track and field, specializing in middle distance races. And while still serving in the then-segregated U.S. Army, he competed in the 1946 “GI Olympics”, held in the Berlin Stadium of Allied-occupied Germany. The traditional Olympics, which had been canceled in 1940 and 1944, would resume in 1948. And by 1950, he would hold the fifth-fastest time in the world for the then 600-yard run. After college, he continued to compete for the Pioneer Club, an organization founded by Joe Yancey, to sanction Black and Jewish athletes who were denied membership to the New York Athletic Club.

Earlier this month, Dinkins, a longtime friend and associate, said, “He brought hope and opportunity to those who had been disenfranchised from the American Dream for decades…and our great city owes (him) the humblest of thanks.”

In addition to his wife, Tyson is survived by his son, artist Stephen Joseph Tyson and his partner Francelise Dawkins, his son, scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson and his wife Alice Young, his daughter, business executive Lynn Antipas Tyson and her husband Richard Vosburgh; six grandchildren: Lauryn Vosburgh, Stephen Tyson Jr., Rachel Tyson, Miranda Tyson, Travis Tyson and Ricardo Vosburgh-Tyson; his sister, Joan Fortuné and numerous nieces and nephews.

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