Meet Rev. Leon Sullivan, the preacher who raised $10M to build the largest shopping center in Philadelphia in the 70s

Stephen Nartey June 01, 2023
Rev. Leon’s commitment to economic empowerment and community development fueled his ambition to establish a thriving shopping center. Photo credit: Hemmings

Rev. Leon H. Sullivan was a prominent figure in civil rights activism and a preacher who advocated for selective patronage among the black community. He was also one of the civil rights campaigners who popularized the term “Don’t buy where you can’t work” in an attempt to disaggregate the labor of major companies.

However, in the late 1960s, he realized that it wasn’t enough to push for desegregation without empowering people of African American descent economically.

When he moved to Philadelphia in the 1950s to begin his ministry with the Zion Baptist Church, he noticed child delinquency was one of the challenges facing the black community, and formed volunteer clubs to get the youth off the streets; when he succeeded, he began helping them to get jobs.

However, local jobs were segregated, encouraging him to begin the campaign to dissuade African Americans to boycott companies that wouldn’t employ them. His selective patronage company from 1960 to 1963, got 29 companies to employ black workers, resulting in 2000 jobs, according to progress plaza.

Another challenge arose with the skill gap among black workers – many of them lacked employable skills. This prompted the reverend to establish Opportunities Industrialization Centers to train black labor. In the wake of those campaigns, he felt more needed to be done to move the black community from being the labor force to the ones controlling businesses.

He later decided to use his ability to mobilize his congregation and inspire collective action. During a Sunday service, he called upon 50 members of his congregation to contribute $10 per month for 36 months to support an unrestricted cooperative program. The response from his congregation was overwhelming, with more members stepping forward the following Sunday to pledge their support.

Over the course of a couple of years, an additional 400 members joined the cause, demonstrating the strong belief and trust they had in his vision.

With a growing base of dedicated supporters, Rev. Leon and his community embarked on a journey to transform their aspirations into reality. Under the guidance of Zion Investment Associates in 1964, they acquired an apartment building worth $75,000, laying the foundation for what would later become Progress Investment Associates.

In 1965, the million-dollar Zion Gardens apartment complex was implemented, and two years later, the largest shopping center in Philadelphia began to take shape. The center is regarded as historic, as President Richard Nixon and Barack Obama have stood to campaign for racial and economic equality for the black community.

Rev. Leon’s commitment to economic empowerment and community development fueled his ambition to establish a thriving shopping center. Progress Plaza, located in North Philadelphia, emerged as a testament to his unwavering determination and leadership. The shopping mall became one of the largest of its kind in Philadelphia and stood as a symbol of progress and opportunity for the local community.

The impact of the reverend’s vision extended far beyond the physical structure of Progress Plaza. His endeavors played a crucial role in revitalizing the neighborhood and creating job opportunities for the community. By establishing a commercial hub, he not only provided access to goods and services but also inspired a sense of pride and economic self-sufficiency among the residents.

Rev. Leon H. Sullivan’s legacy continues to inspire generations, highlighting the importance of community empowerment and economic development. His dedication to social progress and innovative approach to addressing societal challenges have left an indelible mark on Philadelphia.

Progress Plaza stands as a testament to his vision, embodying the transformative power of community-driven initiatives while serving as a reminder of the positive change that can be achieved through collective action.

Last Edited by:Editor Updated: June 11, 2023


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