HARLEM— As the mercury hit 97 degrees Thursday, Brian Acosta, 18, ignored the heat and gathered in front of the state office building on 125th Street with dozens of others to celebrate the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela, the ailing first black president of South Africa.
Acosta said he has been learning about how Mandela battled Apartheid in South Africa and was so inspired he stayed up all night drawing a sign wishing the leader a happy birthday.
"I can't believe he was sent to prison just for speaking the truth," said Acosta. "He inspired me because he's a leader and I want to be a leader, not a follower."
The celebration was sponsored by State Sen. Bill Perkins who recalled Mandela's 1990 visit to Harlem.
"It was a historic moment for this community which was involved in the anti-apartheid movement," said Perkins. "Today's birthday is not simply an opportunity to remember but to continue to be inspired by his example and the struggle against injustice while trying to retain his humanity."
Mandela has been in and out of the hospital frequently in recent months with reports that he was on life support or near death.
South African President Jacob Zuma released a statement Thursday saying that though still hospitalized, Mandela's health was improving.
In South Africa, Mandela's birthday was celebrated by people volunteering for 67 minutes to honor Mandela's 67 years of service.
Tuelo Minah, 31, who is from South Africa but has lived in the United States for 10 years, sang a song to honor Mandela.
"When you have a father figure like Mandela you want to celebrate. We don't want to hear plans for his death because he's still alive," said Minah.
Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens and Perkins presented commendations to Gugulethu Gingqi, the consul of political affairs for the South African Consulate General in New York. Dickens said Mandela remains an inspiration.
"They tried to take him away. They tried to kill his spirit and his body but he survived," said Dickens.
Mandela would be pleased by the celebration, said Gingqi.
"I would like to thank the people of Harlem for the love they showed us and our leaders," he said.
Perkins said Thursday was a day to celebrate and brushed aside questions about whether the celebration was bitter-sweet because of Mandela's health.
"I don't know if for me and many others Mandela will ever die because he's such an inspiration," said Perkins.
For Acosta, Thursday was just a starting point.
"I want to learn more about him, as much as I can," he said of Mandela.