The Sullivan Way is celebrated and dedicated in North Philly

Family members hold up the new street sign named after their patriarch Rev. Dr. Leon H. Sullivan. North Broad Street, between Oxford Street and Girard Avenue, has been renamed Sullivan Way. (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

Family members hold up the new street sign named after their patriarch Rev. Dr. Leon H. Sullivan. North Broad Street, between Oxford Street and Girard Avenue, has been renamed Sullivan Way. (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

North Broad Street between Oxford Street and Girard Avenue is now known as Rev. Dr. Leon H. Sullivan Way.

Dozens attended the unveiling ceremony Saturday in North Philly at the Human Services Center named for Sullivan.  It was billed as a celebration of “a visionary, a man of God and a community activist.”

“You throw a pebble in a pond, you see the waves that ripple out,” said State Sen. Sharif Street,  D-Philadelphia. “And if that was the case, Dr. Leon Sullivan was like an asteroid hitting the ocean.”

A Charleston, West Virginia, native, Sullivan moved to Philadelphia to serve as pastor of Zion Baptist Church. The Philadelphia Tribune summarized some of his achievements: the founding of the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) in 1964, followed in 1968 by Progress Plaza, the first Black-owned and -operated shopping center in the United States. The plaza now bears his name as well.

Sullivan, who died in 2001 at age 78, has also been credited for boosting self-empowerment.  When the mantra of the 1960s was “burn, baby, burn,” he told African Americans to “build, brother, build.”

Street called himself a direct product of Sullivan’s legacy.

“One of those folks he embraced was a young man from a farm out in Conshohocken who was living in North Philadelphia, trying to figure out what he was going to make of himself,” Street said.  “And Dr. Sullivan saw something in him and hired him to work at the OIC.”

The young man Street was referring to his father, John Street, a future mayor of Philadelphia.

It took a decade to make Sullivan Way a reality, according to Howard Sullivan, who said one of his father’s lasting legacies was helping minorities get trained for jobs.

“Creating job-training centers around the world was one of his lasting things,” the younger Sullivan said. “There are still 30 or so in this country, and a lot in Africa also.”

After remarks by dignitaries, people gathered at North Broad and Jefferson — at the corner of the block where Sullivan Progress Plaza is located — to officially unveil the new street sign.

Family, friends, and dignitaries stand under the street sign for Rev. Dr. Leon H. Sullivan Way after the sign’s official unveiling. (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

Wendell R. Whitlock, chairman emeritus of the plaza, said the event brought attention to a man he called “an underrated American hero.”

He cited Sullivan’s accomplishments, such as being the first Black named to a major corporate board in the United States, that of General Motors, as well as his fight for equal rights — from combating segregation in Philadelphia to fighting apartheid in South Africa.

“This is the first step of the enlightenment of this city, this country, the world, to the greatness of Leon Howard Sullivan,” Whitlock said. “He’s an American hero of the world.”

The next step is to get the nation and the world to realize that, he said.

“And that can be done simultaneously.”

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