Stretch of Philly’s Broad Street to be renamed after civil rights champion, the Rev. Leon Sullivan

The Rev. Leon Sullivan attends the opening of Progress Plaza on North Broad Street in Philadelphia in 1968. (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune/Temple University's Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection)

By John N. Mitchell

PHILADELPHIA — The late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan’s legacy has an international reach.

However, it will be honored this weekend in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where he left an indelible mark.

On Saturday, the stretch of North Broad Street between Oxford Street and Girard Avenue will be renamed “Rev. Dr. Leon H. Sullivan Way” in his honor. The unveiling ceremony begins at noon in front of the Leon H. Sullivan Human Services Center at 1415 N. Broad Street.

The Yorktown neighborhood where Sullivan Way is located is surrounded by several entities Sullivan founded, including Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) and Sullivan Progress Plaza.

“I can imagine how proud he would be,” said Hope Sullivan, the youngest of his three children. “I remember as a child driving up and down Broad Street every day and every night. It seemed like we lived on Broad Street. It’s an honor.”

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, Leon Sullivan died in April 2001 at the age of 78. There is also a street named after Sullivan — also named Sullivan Way — in Charleston.

Sullivan moved to Philadelphia in 1950 and became the pastor of Zion Baptist Church at the corner of Broad and Venango streets until he retired in 1988.

Sullivan was a proponent of African-American entrepreneurship, and his message rubbed off on Philadelphians like U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia.

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In 1969, Sullivan wrote “Burn, Brother, Burn,” a book arguing for Black entrepreneurship in response to the riots of the 1960s.

“While people were saying, ‘burn, baby, burn,’ Rev. Sullivan was encouraging African-Americans building in our own communities,” Evans said. “In 1969, he was encouraging us to do the same things that we’re trying to do in 2019. His philosophy is grounded into my public policy.”

Sullivan founded OIC, a series of training schools aimed at putting African Americans to work in various industries, in 1964. By 1969, it had about 20,000 people enrolled in its job placement programs. OIC still operates in 22 states and Africa.

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Sullivan opened Progress Plaza in 1968. It was the first African American-owned shopping center in the U.S.

“Progress Plaza is his crowning glory,” said Wendell R. Whitlock, a longtime friend of Sullivan. “This [street renaming] demonstrates a recognition of his greatness, his charity and his vision.

“It’s long overdue,” Whitlock continued. “I don’t think that anyone in this city has had the impact that he has. His impact was felt across the country and worldwide.”

A leader in the civil rights movement, Sullivan organized the “Selective Patronage” campaign, pulling together 400 ministers and their congregations to boycott major companies that refused to hire Blacks.

In 1971, Sullivan became the first African American to join General Motors’ Board of Directors, where he served until 1991.

While he was on the board, Sullivan took his fight against racial injustice international.

In 1977, he drafted the Sullivan Principles, guidelines for American businesses operating in South Africa during apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

The Sullivan Principles called for desegregation on factory floors and in the company eating and washing facilities; fair employment practices; equal pay for equal work; promotion of more Blacks and other nonwhites to supervisory positions; and improved housing, schooling, recreation and health facilities for workers.

By the the late 1980s, Sullivan toughened his stance on South Africa, urging American companies to totally disinvest in the country.

“He was a fearless leader,” Whitlock said, “totally fearless and always fighting for people who couldn’t fight for themselves.”

John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.