Historical Marker Goes to First Black Owned Shopping Center

MARGO REED / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Community leaders unveiled a Pennsylvania Historical Commission historical marker at Progress Plaza honoring the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a civil rights icon who fought apartheid in South Africa and encouraged black economic development at home.
MARGO REED / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Community leaders unveiled a Pennsylvania Historical Commission historical marker at Progress Plaza honoring the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a civil rights icon who fought apartheid in South Africa and encouraged black economic development at home.

Howard Sullivan remembers riding on construction equipment at Broad and Oxford Streets when he was 10, as workers broke ground at Progress Plaza and his father’s dream became reality.

The shopping center, which opened in 1968 in the heart of North Philadelphia, was the brainchild of the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a civil rights icon who fought apartheid in South Africa and encouraged black economic development at home. Sullivan Progress Plaza, as it is now known, was the first shopping center in the country that was developed, owned, and operated by African Americans.

On Wednesday, a group of community leaders unveiled a Pennsylvania Historical Commission historical marker there.

“I’m really proud,” Howard Sullivan said, standing beneath the familiar blue-and-gold plaque. “[The Plaza] has always been present in my life, and it’s good to see it’s being recognized for its historical import.”

Leon Sullivan, who died in 2001, was “a man ahead of his time,” said Wendell Whitlock, the chairman emeritus of Progress Investment Associates, founded by Sullivan, which developed the shopping center nearly half a century ago.

Sullivan realized early on the importance of economic empowerment for the black community.

“In America, it’s about the dollar,” said City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, speaking at Wednesday’s event. “Rev. Sullivan preached that we have to invest in our community and our people.”

A native of West Virginia, Sullivan assumed the pulpit of the Zion Baptist Church in 1950 and set about establishing a day-care center, a savings-and-loan program, and an employment office for his congregation.

In 1960, looking for jobs to add to lists in the employment office, he realized that many companies in Philadelphia did not employ African Americans, or employed them only in low-level jobs. The subsequent boycott he organized helped integrate the ranks at major corporations like Tasty Baking Co. and Coca-Cola and opened thousands of jobs to African Americans.

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Source: Philly.com |  Aubrey Whelan