Nation’s first black-owned shopping center celebrates 50 years

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Wendell Whitlock is the Board Chairman Emeritus of Sullivan Progress Plaza. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Wendell Whitlock is the Board Chairman Emeritus of Sullivan Progress Plaza. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The shopping center on Broad and Oxford Streets might not look out of the ordinary to the average passersby. But that hasn’t stopped politicians from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama from staging rallies there.

That’s because Sullivan Progress Plaza was the first shopping center in America built, owned, and managed by African Americans. Saturday marks the 50th Anniversary of the historic North Philadelphia shopping center with origins in the civil rights and black power movements.

The brainchild of legendary Philadelphia Reverend Leon Sullivan, Progress Plaza opened in 1968. Congressman Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, was a young man then. He still remembers Sullivan’s message of black entrepreneurship and economic control as an empowering mantra in a time of conflict and change.

“At that time people were talking about ‘burn, baby, burn,’ ” said Rep. Evans, who will be honoring Progress Plaza’s 50th anniversary. “He wrote a book called “Build, Brother, Build.” That was the fundamental difference. I tried to model myself after him when I got elected to the state legislature in 1980 and duplicate what he did with Progress Plaza.”

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Sullivan’s civil rights leadership began in the late 1950s when he made his name in Philadelphia by helping lead the “selective patronage” campaign. Sullivan and the other ministers preached to African-American congregants, “don’t buy where you can’t work,” and helped to desegregate the workforces of many major companies, including Tastykake.

But by the later 1960s, Sullivan came to believe that a simple focus on desegregation wasn’t enough.

A photo of Rev. Sullivan, his wife and President Bill Clinton is on display in the offices of Sullivan Progress Plaza. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In addition to training black workers in his Opportunities Industrialization Center, he declared that black people needed more than just being able to work wherever they wanted. Control of business, control of capital, was essential as well.

“Sullivan wanted nothing less than to open a wedge for black entrepreneurship in major commercial and industrial sectors like real estate development and aeronautical production,” writes Stephanie Dyer in her essay in “The Economic Civil Rights Movement.” “Economic strongholds far removed from black capital’s traditional niches in insurance, cosmetics, personal services, and funeral homes.”

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Using capital leveraged in part from donations made by his parishioners and in part from traditional capital, Sullivan opened Progress Plaza. In that same year, Republican Presidential candidate Richard Nixon visited the shopping center as part of his push to promote “Black Capitalism,” which he saw as an alternative to both radical activist groups and integrationist liberals.

“This whole thing is owned by African Americans,” Sullivan explained to Nixon. “Every brick is owned. People rent from us. Nothing I do is owned by whites. They support me, that’s the only way I can do it. But I wouldn’t take white money to run me at all.”

For Sullivan, his ideology of economic empowerment wasn’t necessarily in competition with other elements of the black power movement. Instead, he saw his enterprises as complementary to the political power that Cecil B. Moore sought, or the more radical trajectories of other black activist groups.

Shortly after the successful launch of Progress Plaza, Sullivan embarked on ventures in garment manufacturing and aeronautics. But both of those companies failed by the 1980s, while his real estate and retail venture survived, although it struggled in the face of continued population loss and capital divestment in North Philadelphia.

“The economic lesson of Progress Plaza is that you can’t get economic investment into black-only communities at the kind of level necessary to have them be competitive with suburbs and downtown,” said Matthew Countryman, Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and Sullivan’s great nephew.  “It also couldn’t be an incubator of black businesses for that reason — It didn’t have economic sustainability, [because of] disinvestment from inner-city communities that followed the urban rebellions.”

Wendell R. Whitlock became the chairman of Progress Investment Associates, the company that controls the plaza, in the 1980s. (Sullivan by then had focused on concerns beyond Philadelphia, like his vigorous anti-apartheid campaigning.)

Whitlock recalls that back when he started, the grocery store in Progress Plaza was the highest-grossing Super Fresh in the state. But that’s because residents in the surrounding neighborhoods didn’t have other options.

“I refused to go in there,” recalled Whitlock. “It smelled like my high school boys locker room, before we took showers. It smelled bad.”

By the 2000s, Whitlock wanted to revitalize the plaza by building a 28-story building atop the supermarket and expanding the shopping center’s footprint northward. But the community objected, he said, because they believed his effort to be a collaboration with Temple University. Now the anchor institution itself has absorbed the area Whitlock hoped to claim, and an even taller dorm apartment building looms just to the north of the plaza.

Nonetheless, Whitlock secured $5 million in funds for the revitalization of the plaza, with the aid of then-Gov. Ed Rendall, then-state Senator Shirley Kitchen, and White, then a state Rep. in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Today, the plaza is 85 percent occupied. But most of the businesses are chains, and not black-owned, as Sullivan had hoped.

“The pride is that it is still standing,” said Whitlock. “When it started it had 90 percent minority vendors. Well, [today] we have one minority vendor, and he is Asian — and it [his store] is a beautiful place.”

Whitlock expects two more minority-owned businesses to move into the plaza by the end of the year. And on Saturday, a collection of city luminaries will attend a luncheon in honor of the plaza’s golden anniversary.

Democratic nominee for State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who located his campaign office in the shopping center, won’t be there because he plans to be out canvassing. But for him, Sullivan Progress Plaza is an iconic emblem of North Philadelphia.

“North Philly’s story is not a story of decay and decline,” said Kenyatta. “It’s a story of people pushing past obstacles to make amazing things happen.”

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