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A city and church are celebrating the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, the ‘Lion of Zion,’ for his 100th birthday

Zion Baptist Church, the city of Philadelphia, and its Office of the Creative Economy are celebrating Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, whose 100th birthday would have been Sunday, Oct. 16.

Grace Sullivan and the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan say goodbye to church members after Leon Sullivan’s last sermon at Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia on June 26, 1988.
Grace Sullivan and the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan say goodbye to church members after Leon Sullivan’s last sermon at Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia on June 26, 1988.Read moreMichael Mercanti / The Philadelphia Inquirer & Daily News archive

Zion Baptist Church members said it never bothered them that the Rev. Dr. Leon H. Sullivan was often out of town, meeting with U.S. presidents or heads of corporations, or abroad, conferring with foreign leaders.

Wherever he had traveled in the world, he would always be back in the pulpit on Sundays.

“Whether he was in Africa, or whether he was here in the States, he would never, ever forget us on Sunday mornings,” said George Van Norton, the church administrator.

This Sunday, on what would have been Rev. Sullivan’s 100th birthday, Zion Baptist will have a Centennial Worship Service, including services at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The Rev. Sullivan was 78 when he died on April 24, 2001.

The following Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney and members of the Rev. Sullivan’s family are expected to attend a ceremony to rename the International Arrivals Hall at the Philadelphia International Airport after Rev. Sullivan and to unveil a permanent exhibit that will honor his legacy.

The City of Philadelphia and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy have also been working with the Leon H. Sullivan Charitable Trust to feature programs throughout the month of October in his honor.

Often referred to as the “Lion of Zion,” the Rev. Sullivan led Zion Baptist at Broad and Venango Streets for 38 years from 1950 to 1988.

Befitting his nickname, the Rev. Sullivan was a charismatic preacher, with both a thundering voice and a towering, imposing stature at 6-foot-5.

“He had a strong, powerful, booming voice, and his sermons were emotional,” said Ronald J. Harper, chair of the church’s Board of Trustees.

Meetings with U.S. presidents and villagers in Africa

The Rev. Sullivan met with every U.S. president from Lyndon B. Johnson through George H.W. Bush. They sought his opinions based on the civil rights, job-training, and economic self-help programs he started in the United States and in Africa, as well as his advice on dismantling apartheid. President George H.W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.

In 1958, he started a “selective patronage” campaign that urged Black people to boycott businesses that would not hire them. The motto was “Don’t shop where you can’t work.”

A few years later, in 1964, he opened the first Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), a job-training center at an abandoned jail at 19th and Oxford Streets. Today, there are centers throughout the U.S. and Africa.

“You’re not going to get another Leon Sullivan.”

The Rev. Chauncey P. Harrison

The Rev. Sullivan made national news in 1971 when he was the first Black person named to the board of directors of a multinational corporation in America, General Motors.

He later used that platform to become a powerful antiapartheid advocate. In 1977, he worked with corporate leaders to develop the Sullivan Principles, a code of conduct for companies that continued to do business in South Africa despite worldwide protests.

Not everyone was pleased with the Sullivan Principles.

Critics both in the United States and in South Africa condemned the principles as some sort of “sellout” that offered a lifeline to the apartheid system by delaying efforts to get American corporations to withdraw from South Africa altogether.

That controversy and criticism “broke his heart,” said Julie Sullivan-Detheridge, one of the Rev. Sullivan’s three children. “Desmond Tutu said, ‘Leon’s work was just polishing our chains.’ He hated that.”

She added that despite the public persona of a “roaring lion,” her father had a gentle manner in private. He spoke quietly and did not want to fight his critics in public.

» READ MORE: Civil rights leader Leon Sullivan called for total commitment to total solutions. We’re getting there. | Opinion

In 1987, 10 years after the Sullivan Principles were first issued, the Rev. Sullivan conceded the principles weren’t working and called on American corporations to leave South Africa and for Nelson Mandela to be freed.

A documentary film on the Rev. Sullivan shows that less than three years later, when Mandela was released in February 1990, Mandela, the future first Black president of South Africa, stood next to the Rev. Sullivan and thanked him: “One of the tragic situations for freedom fighters is to forget those who stood with you when you were all alone. That is the importance of an institution such as Rev. Sullivan.”

From poverty to the pulpit

Leon Howard Sullivan was born in poverty in Charleston, W.Va., but he rose to become pastor of what was once considered one of the largest, most influential Black churches in the country.

When the Rev. Sullivan was at the church, the pews were packed, said Harper, the trustee board chair. stood next to the Rev. Sullivan and thanked him.

The church membership grew from 600, when the Rev. Sullivan first arrived, to about 6,000.

“If you weren’t in your seat at 10 a.m. you would have to sit in the gym,” said Harper, who joined the church when he was about 11.

Zion’s current pastor, the Rev. Chauncey P. Harrison, 32, who has a Yale University seminary degree and a doctorate in ministry from Duke, said he knew it would be a challenge to inherit a historic church, and he said it can be a bit overwhelming at times.

“Pastor Sullivan was an iconic leader,” he said “You’re not going to get another Leon Sullivan.”

But he said he has confidence that he can help the church build upon Rev. Sullivan’s legacy.

Total commitment to total solutions

One of the most visible signs in Philadelphia of Rev. Sullivan’s impact in the city was the development of Sullivan Progress Plaza, which opened in 1968 as Progress Plaza, and is believed to have been the first Black-owned shopping center.

The Rev. Sullivan wanted Black people to create their own businesses and invest in property, so he came up with a plan to have 50 church members donate $10 a month for 36 months to raise money for two new entities.

The money that was raised went to start a for-profit arm, called Zion Investment Associates, and a nonprofit arm, the Leon H. Sullivan Charitable Trust.

“When the citizens are engaged, there is nothing we cannot accomplish”

Mable Ellis Welborn

The for-profit organization not only developed Progress Plaza but several apartment complexes in the city, including Zion Gardens Apartments on Girard Avenue and the Opportunities Towers I and II on West Hunting Park Avenue.

Mable Ellis Welborn is chair of the board of the nonprofit charitable trust, which leases office space to 12 nonprofit organizations at the Human Services Center.

“I learned from Dr. Sullivan, that when the citizens are engaged, there is nothing we cannot accomplish,” she said with a nod to the shopping center and apartment complexes.

“Even when it comes to dealing with human issues, such as violence and illness, and gang-warring and whatever the human problems are, when we the citizens are engaged with coming up with a solution, solutions are attainable.”

The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.