Paterson was born in Harlem on April 27, 1926, the son of Leonard James and Evangeline Alicia (Rondon) Paterson. His father was born on the island of Carriacou in the Grenadines and arrived in the United States aboard the S.S. Vestris on May 16, 1917 in New York City. His mother was born in Kingston, Jamaica and arrived in the United States on September 9, 1919 aboard the S.S. Vestnorge in Philadelphia with a final destination of New York City. A stenographer by profession, the former Miss Rondon once served as a secretary for Marcus Garvey.
In 1942, at the age of 16, Paterson graduated from De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He was shaped by his experiences with racism early on. “I got out of high school when I was 16,” Paterson told New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, “and the first real job I had was with a wholesale house in the old Port Authority building, down on 18th Street. We’d pack and load these trucks that went up and down in huge elevators. Every year there would be a Christmas party for the employees at some local hotel. Those of us who worked in the shipping department were black. We got paid not to go to the party.” He attended college at St. John’s University, but his studies were interrupted by a two-year stint in the U.S. Army during World War II. After serving honorably, he returned to St. John’s to complete his undergraduate studies. While there he was very active in social and community service organizations, including among others the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, where he joined the ranks of the Omicron chapter of New York (now at Columbia University) in 1947. Paterson graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in biology in 1948. He was later admitted to St. John’s Law School, where he received a Juris Doctor degree in 1951.
Paterson became involved in Democratic politics in Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s. A member of the “Gang of Four”; along with, former New York Mayor David Dinkins, the late Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, and Congressman Charles Rangel, Paterson was a leader of the “Harlem Clubhouse”, which has dominated Harlem politics since the 1960s.
In 1965, Paterson was elected to the New York State Senate representing the Upper West Side of New York City and Harlem. He gave up his Senate seat in 1970 to run for Lieutenant Governor of New York, as the running mate of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. The Goldberg/Paterson ticket lost to the Republican ticket of incumbent Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Lt. Gov. Malcolm Wilson. In 1978, Paterson was appointed as a Deputy Mayor of New York City by then Mayor Ed Koch. He stepped down as deputy mayor in 1979 to become Secretary of State of New York, the first African American person to have held the post, and served until the end of the Hugh Carey administration in 1982. Despite having briefly served in the Koch Administration, Paterson made moves to run for Mayor against Koch as the latter sought a third term, but ultimately chose not to run.
Paterson was a member of the law firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C., where he was co-chair of the firm’s labor law practice. Paterson was the father of former New York Governor David Paterson, who was elected Lieutenant Governor in 2006 on a ticket with Gov. Eliot Spitzer. David Paterson succeeded to the governor’s office upon Spitzer’s resignation on March 17, 2008. When his son became lieutenant governor, Basil Paterson said that fact may actually “get in the way” of his livelihood as a negotiator and lawyer for the Hospital Workers and Teamsters unions. Paterson died April 16, 2014. He was 87.
- April, 27, 1926
- Harlem, New York City, New York
- April, 16, 2014
- Harlem, New York City, New York