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Dr. Guy Fisher, From ‘The Real Godfather of Harlem’ to PhD.

Dr. Guy Fisher, a one-time business partner of Nicky Barnes, continues to write his redemption story after serving 38 years in prison and earning four degrees.
Dr. Guy Fisher

By Malcolm Rashaad Banks

Redemption is a powerful and complicated term that can define how we view individuals and their place in society. The arc of a person's life is meant not to be cemented by past flaws but by their redemptive values and actions to rectify mistakes. For instance, Malcolm X is so widely revered for not being shackled by his past transgressions in the streets as Malcolm Little, but rather for his transformation and impact after serving a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Dr. Guy Fisher, the former business partner of one-time American crime boss Nicky Barnes, has an intriguing and rare story that, in many ways, separates him from his contemporaries.

The 1970s were one of the most notorious and dangerous times to live in New York City. It was as common to see an individual noticeably deteriorating by the ills of drug use as it was to see a police car patrol the streets. High-level criminal operations were in place, and approximately 200,000 heroin addicts were spread throughout the city. It's this environment that Dr. Fisher grew up in and ultimately became somewhat of an urban legend for his reputation and proximity to one of New York's most notorious figures in Barnes.

Growing up in Patterson housing projects in the Bronx, Dr. Fisher had a tough upbringing that included his father succumbing to alcoholism. The abuse forced upon Dr. Fisher as a child, as well his mother, played a role in his development and shortcomings. By 1972, he joined Barnes's organization, “The Council,” a seven-member African-American organized crime syndicate in New York City that controlled the heroin trade in the Harlem during the 1970s.

While it was Barnes who took on a national profile as a flamboyant figure, Dr. Fisher, more than 14 years Barnes's junior, became known as "The Real Godfather of Harlem." He made wins, perhaps most noticeably highlighted by becoming the first Black owner of the Apollo Theater in 1977. Although he was a notorious figure in the streets, Dr. Fisher will tell you he always cared about the people of his community and wanted to create opportunities and make an honest living. His purchase of the renowned Apollo saved the iconic venue from permanent closure, furnishing the establishment with renovations and providing employment to many individuals from his neighborhood.

Here is where lies the complicated story of Dr. Fisher. Do you shun and dismiss a man for his past sins? Or embrace his road to redemption during the second chapter of his life? In Dr. Fisher's case, that second chapter is historic and started during his life sentence in prison. Instead of reliving his glory days while serving his sentence, Dr. Fisher chose to pursue an education and give his life and purpose new meaning. The now 75-year-old was the first state or federal inmate to earn four degrees while incarcerated and he has written 10 books, and he condemns his past criminal actions. He was released early from prison, as a result of his health, risk of contracting coronavirus, and commitment to rehabilitation.

It's this second act that separates Dr. Fisher from his contemporaries. While he maps out ways to give back to the community and serve as a beacon of hope and redemption for the youth, many influential street figures he came up with don't have the same story of redemption. Instead, many of their tales ended on the other end of a loaded gun, sitting in prison, or vanishing into protective custody like the once bigger-than-life Barnes.

UPTOWN spoke with Dr. Fisher for his first magazine interview since being released from prison. He reflected on his upbringing and complicated past, the thought process behind the purchase of the Apollo Theatre, and his new documentary that will tell the full story of his life.

UPTOWN: Tell me about the neighborhood you grew up in. How would you describe the environment?

Dr. Guy Fisher: I grew up in the Patterson projects in the Bronx, NY. [It was] poverty-stricken, but our projects were somewhat unique because we all stuck together despite our conditions.

UPTOWN: Obtaining several degrees and writing an abundance of books speaks to your brilliance. As a kid growing up, how was your schooling experience?

Fisher: I was always considered the class clown in school. Whenever the teacher asked me a question, I always [responded] with a joke because I didn't know the answer, but all that changed once I sought my education and obtained my Ph.D. in sociology while incarcerated.

UPTOWN: Often, when we discuss crime in the inner city, there needs to be more dialogue about the lack of resources and opportunities available. What are some of the roadblocks that existed in your childhood that may have led you to your former lifestyle?

Fisher: There were many roadblocks that lead me to my former lifestyle. However, one of the most challenging was my father's alcoholism and his physical abuse towards my mother and me.

UPTOWN: Tell us about your prior relationship with Nicky Barnes. How did you meet, and was his personality as big as it was portrayed in the media?

Fisher: That's a really great question. [There's] more than I can summarize here. You'll get the full story in my book GUY and in my documentary.

UPTOWN: The Apollo has been a legendary staple of NYC's culture for over 100 years. Many might not know that you saved the Apollo after it had fallen into disrepair. Tell me about that moment and your motivation for purchasing the iconic building.

Fisher: I purchased the Apollo Theater to create something positive and to make an honest living. I also created jobs for the people, mainly from the Patterson projects. I wanted to give the people something to enjoy.

UPTOWN: You have an important place in history as the first state or federal inmate to earn four degrees while incarcerated. Tell me about your interests and pursuit of education while confined.

Fisher: Prison is often glorified in our communities. [It's] almost like a badge of honor. The truth is it shouldn't be. I consciously chose to avoid drama and stay positive during my time in [prison]. I saw education as a way to better myself, and I also chose education over hate because hatred was too heavy to carry.

UPTOWN: While serving your life sentence, you wrote ten books. Did you always have a passion for writing? Was this something you dived into early during your incarceration?

Fisher: I never had a passion for writing until I was in Marion, a locked-down federal prison with no TVs and distractions. We were locked down for 24 hours a day. Most of the inmates chose reading and writing. I chose writing, [which] opened up something inside of me I never knew existed. Writing gave me back my freedom. During my 38 years of incarceration, I have written 10 books and multiple movie scripts.

UPTOWN: Tell me about your new documentary. What do you want viewers to get out of the experience?

Fisher: I looked at the documentary space and didn't see enough of our stories being told. So, while having different discussions about my life story being explored as a film or TV series, I opted to move forward in working on a documentary first. I wanted to tell my entire story in an unfiltered way. My story isn't necessarily just about myself. It's a criminal justice story told through my lens. One that includes socioeconomics, mass incarceration, education, and redemption. I hope that viewers walk away learning something they didn't know about all of the above.

UPTOWN: You have a powerful story, one that has seen both sides of the coin. You understand the dangers of the streets and, on the flip side, the power of education. What is your message to young people growing up in tough neighborhoods where crime may seem like an easier option than school?

Fisher: The message I want to give to our youth of America is to never give up! Find something positive within yourself and seek education. Do not put yourself in a negative situation that will allow you to get killed, locked up, or taken away from your loved ones. The way you think is how your life will be. Everything you want to achieve is in front of you, not behind you.

UPTOWN: There has been significant criticism of the criminal justice system from many advocacy groups across the country. Many agree that substantial change needs to be made. What are some of your thoughts on the criminal justice system in this country?

Fisher: It's flawed. My case was filled with injustices, yet the system tends to overlook the nuances of their own laws that would have made it impossible for me to receive a life sentence. I hope my book and documentary can shed some light from my perspective and help further the conversation to enact legislative changes on the state and federal levels.

UPTOWN: Your story is rare because we rarely see individuals on your scale make mistakes, rectify those actions, and change for the better. What does the next chapter of the Guy Fisher story look like?

Fisher: [The] next chapter of my life story will be me sharing my redemption story to our youth of America and the men and women currently serving time. I will advise them to seek education and to achieve something positive.