First black-owned shopping center gets historical marker

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.

The seed money for Progress Plaza came from $10-a-month investments from Sullivan's congregants. The plaza, when it opened, boasted an A&P supermarket and a job training center, and inspired several similar projects.

The shopping center struggled in later years amid a rocky economy and population decline. But Progress Investment Associates launched a $16 million renovation in 2007, and in 2009 the Fresh Grocer that opened there became the first supermarket in the neighborhood in 11 years.

Today, the center stands as a testament to Sullivan's legacy, Whitlock said.

"I'm but the vehicle through which his gospel came to fruition," Whitlock said.

Local officials said the new marker is a welcome reminder of a piece of Philadelphia history that is sometimes overlooked.

"We need to have this curriculum in our schools," said Diane Turner, the curator of the Charles H. Blockson Collection at Temple University. "The marker is a model of self-determination and excellence."

awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan