In West Virginia in 1930, eight-year-old Leon H. Sullivan sat down at the counter at a drugstore, put down a nickel and ordered a coke. The owner, angry and fuming, shouted at Sullivan to stand on his feet, because black boys weren’t allowed to sit at the counter. It was then, Sullivan’s first encounter with segregation, he decided to fight against this kind of injustice for the rest of his life. And what a fight it was.
The Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, having attended both West Virginia State College and the Columbia University Union Theological Seminary, became a Baptist minister at age 18. In 1950, he settled in Philadelphia, and became pastor of the Zion Baptist Church, where he preached to thousands of African American community members every week, and saw first hand the struggle for employment but noted plenty of vacant jobs. Sullivan developed a plan for the economic empowerment of his community. Starting with the “selective patronage” movement, and then the founding of OIC and the 10-36 plan to fund Progress Plaza, Sullivan truly dedicated himself to opening opportunities to all.
In 1977, after having served as the first African American on the Board of Directors at General Motors for six years, Sullivan wanted to leverage his position to put an end to apartheid in South Africa. He introduced the Sullivan Principles, a set of guidelines for American companies with investments in South Africa, and called for other large corporations to voluntarily withdraw their assets while apartheid was still in effect.
The principles were only the first step in the Reverend Sullivan’s effort to bridge Africans and African Americans, as he later organized a series of summit meetings between the two, the first held in Cote d’Ivoire in 1991. Now, the meeting happens biennially, bringing together multinational leaders, organizations and delegates to have an open dialogue on economic and social development in Africa. It’s called the Leon H. Sullivan Summit.
Though we are reminded daily of the enormous legacy of the Reverend Sullivan, through our walls, our mission and our students, we are always humbled to think of the true impact he had across Philadelphia, our nation and the world.