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Philadelphia's next city solicitor has a tale to share

Sozi P. Tulante is unsure which memories of Zaire are his own and which are stories he has been told. But he remembers vividly when the soldiers came for his father.

Sozi P. Tulante, Jim Kenney's pick for city solicitor, in the past held back in publicly sharing his life story.
Sozi P. Tulante, Jim Kenney's pick for city solicitor, in the past held back in publicly sharing his life story.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Sozi P. Tulante is unsure which memories of Zaire are his own and which are stories he has been told. But he remembers vividly when the soldiers came for his father.

The banging. Huddling in the corner. The men sweeping up family photos so they could see whom his father, a former government official wanted by the new regime, was working with.

"I'm a prosecutor now. I know the value of having photographs," Tulante said. "You can say, 'Who is this person? Why is he meeting with you?' "

It is an early memory from a remarkable life, one Mayor-elect Jim Kenney last week said he couldn't help but admire when he decided to make Tulante his city solicitor, essentially Philadelphia's top lawyer.

"But it's not the only thing," Kenney added when announcing Tulante, now a federal prosecutor, as his pick. "I happened to see Harvard on his resumé, too."

Tulante's father, who died last year, had a tale extraordinary in its own right, but he rarely shared it. His son now tells it for him.

Manuel T. Sozinho had been a leader in the successful Angolan revolution against the Portuguese and in 1975 became first commander of the Angolan navy. But that transitional government fractured internally, and Sozinho fled to Zaire, what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sozinho was arrested by the Zairean government in 1982. After more than a year behind bars, and amid mounting pressure from the United Nations, he was released. The family received political asylum in the United States, resettling in Philadelphia.

Sozinho, who spoke half a dozen languages but not English, took classes at the Community College of Philadelphia. He drove a taxi, helped found the Angolan Community of Pennsylvania, and became a respected leader in the city's African community.

At first sight

Tulante, the oldest of four children, was 8 when he first saw the Philadelphia skyline from the Ben Franklin Bridge.

"The bridge felt like it went on forever," he said.

But the America on the other side - a one-bedroom apartment in North Philly, hunger, sandwiches of thin bread and hard government cheese - was not the America of massive homes and fur coats he had seen on Dallas and Dynasty. In school, his peers knew little about Africa beyond what they had seen in famine relief campaigns. Did he have AIDS? they asked. Was that meal his first in weeks?

Tulante embraced some of the stereotypes when convenient, bragging, for instance, that he had killed lions, because he thought it made him tough. He got in fights and started hanging around drug corners for the same reason.

On a Saturday night when he was 12, after a fight with his father, he ran away and headed north on Erie Avenue. A police officer found him and took him home.

His father took a few days to calm down, then put it plainly to his son: He was a disappointment.


That talking-to turned Tulante's life around.

His father enrolled him in a new school where he felt challenged, started excelling, and recorded perfect attendance.

Still, there were barriers. He learned how deeply rooted race was in his new home each time he did something his friends said was out of line.

Talking to a white student. Suggesting a trip to the Italian Market. Taking the bus to Northeast Regional Library, where he was met with racial slurs.

He went anyway.

"People would always tell me, 'Man, you can't say that.' I'm like, 'Why?' 'There's just certain rules,' " he said. "And I was like 'Someone's got to tell me these rules.' "

Tulante was accepted to every college he applied to and picked Harvard University, where he studied African American history.

"No matter how I identified myself, I was going to be identified as black," Tulante said. "So I said let me go study. Let me understand that."

When he learned about Brown v. Board of Education and the long fight to end segregation in schools, he knew he wanted to be a lawyer.

That is how, as Kenney said, Harvard Law landed on his resumé.

Sharing his story

When his first of three children was born in 2008, Tulante said, he made a decision to share his story more often. He wanted his son to know his roots.

But publicly, and especially in a professional setting, he said, he has always been reticent.

"When you want to be an example, you have to be prepared for it," he said. "And I wasn't prepared to tell it in a way that's not painful. Telling someone you're on welfare, it took me a very long time to be comfortable saying that."

Others who know Tulante say he has always seemed to stand confident.

"He knows who he is," said Mark Aronchick, a former city solicitor who worked with Tulante when Tulante was in private practice. "He knows where he came from. He knows where he's going."

Aronchick - who told Kenney's transition team to consider Tulante - called him deeply inquisitive, personable, and trustworthy.

"You have to be the kind of personality where people are willing to come to you before they make a mistake because they trust you, because they know you have wisdom, because you're not judging them," Aronchick said. "He's that kind of person."

Connecting people

Tulante's youngest sister, Christina Sozinho, called him a "connector" who is always introducing people to one another. She said that is how his annual family barbecue has turned into a sprawling block party that shuts down his West Philadelphia street, drawing neighbors, their friends, passersby, and the occasional homeless person who comes for a meal.

"People think he is this Harvard-educated man, but they would see him dancing in the middle of the street, doing crazy things," she said. "He loves to make people laugh and smile."

Tulante said it was tempting at first to remain an assistant U.S. attorney, a job that lacks the public scrutiny of the one he is taking. But he said the significance of a refugee being appointed to such a post isn't lost on him.

And he knows his story - now that he is sharing it - can resonate with others.

"I'm not going to turn down that opportunity," he said. "It's too important."