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R. Sessoms, dry cleaner & activist

RALEIGH Gene Sessoms was proud of the role he played in the development of Progress Plaza, the black-owned shopping center in North Philadelphia.

RALEIGH Gene Sessoms was proud of the role he played in the development of Progress Plaza, the black-owned shopping center in North Philadelphia.

It was about 1962 when the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, pastor of Zion Baptist Church, asked parishioners to help him fulfill his dream of a shopping center by and for the black community.

Raleigh, a member of the church since 1958, willingly volunteered to help raise funds and whatever else was needed to create the stores on Broad Street at Jefferson, which became a reality in 1968.

He was also active in the creation of the senior-citizens complex, Zion Gardens.

"He and Reverend Sullivan were very close," said his daughter Cheryl Sessoms Davis. "He was very proud of the fact that both facilities are still operational today."

Raleigh Sessoms, onetime operator of a dry-cleaning and tailoring shop who delighted in teaching the trade that he learned as a teenager in North Carolina to young people, an honored community activist and an officer in the Masons, died Tuesday. He was 74 and lived in West Oak Lane.

He was born the seventh of the eight children of Joyce and Raleigh Sessoms in Bertie County, N.C. He got his early schooling there, and by the age of 17 was running his own dry-cleaning business.

He came to Philadelphia in 1952 and began working in both dry cleaning and as a freelance tailor, lending his skills to others.

But in 1970, he opened Sessoms Better Cleaners on Ogontz Avenue near 67th Avenue. For 15 years it served the neighborhood, and Raleigh encouraged young people to come in and learn the trade.

He also taught the trade at the Randolph Skills Center.

"He really enjoyed working with young people," his daughter said. "He was a good, hard-working man with a real community spirit."

That sense of community duty earned him the Humanitarian Award for Community Service from the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in 1966.

Raleigh returned to Bertie County, N.C., in 1953, to marry his high-school sweetheart, Minnie Louise Mitchell. They shared 36 years of a loving marriage before her death.

He was a board member of the National Cleaning Association. He assisted with blood drives and dry-cleaning training seminars. In 1984, he presented then-District Attorney Ed Rendell an NCA Community Service Award.

Raleigh joined James Varick Lodge 31 of the Masons in 1959. He served as senior steward from 1960 to 1961, and junior and then senior deacon until 1963. He became junior and then senior warden from 1963 to 1965. He was selected as worship master, the position he held until 1966.

He also became president of the Square Nine Club, the fund-raising arm of the lodge, and staged barbecues and other benefit events.

Last year, Raleigh was honored by the lodge with the title "Master Mason of the Year."

Besides his daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Cynthia Sessoms Fullenwellen; two sons, Stanley Gene Sessoms and Eric Sessoms; five sisters, Elizabeth Knight, Goldie Cherry, Florida Coverdale, Rohdine Bazemore and Margaret Perry; seven grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Services: 9 a.m. Saturday at Zion Baptist Church, 3600 N. Broad St. Friends may call at 8 a.m. Burial will be in Ivy Hill Cemetery, Wadsworth Avenue and Woolston Road. *