Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Leon Howard Sullivan (1922–2001) was devoted to improving the lives of black people throughout the world. A strong advocate of self-help, he believed that anyone could achieve success if they had the tools and opportunities to do so. He became pastor of Philadelphia’s prominent Zion Baptist Church in 1950, and shortly thereafter he established organizations to promote youth employment and find solutions to juvenile delinquency. Both institutions were recognized nationally and served as models in other American cities.

In subsequent years, Sullivan organized efforts against businesses that denied African Americans employment opportunities, resulting in the opening of thousands of jobs to blacks. Following several successes, he realized that there was a need for training programs to provide opportunities for African Americans to compete for better jobs. In 1964 he founded the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), which first operated in an abandoned jailhouse in Philadelphia. New OIC locations soon sprang up across the U.S. and, by 1970, in other countries. A Pennsylvania Historical Marker for OIC at 19th and Oxford streets in Philadelphia was dedicated in 1990.

Leon Howard Sullivan at Progress Plaza in a photograph by Richard Rosenberg, October 1969.

Leon Howard Sullivan at Progress Plaza in a photograph by Richard Rosenberg, October 1969.
Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia

Sullivan’s business acumen was substantial and widely recognized; he was appointed to the boards of General Motors and Mellon Bank. With the cooperation of members of Zion church, he also developed investment entities that assisted black businesses. One notable achievement was the establishment of Sullivan Progress Plaza in 1968, the first shopping center in the U.S. built, owned and managed by African Americans. Within the plaza he set up a training center to educate the black community about business management and entrepreneurship. A marker for Sullivan Progress Plaza in North Philadelphia was dedicated in 2016.

Although Sullivan worked tirelessly to uplift the African American community, he was also involved in doing the same for black communities throughout the world. He was especially influential in South Africa, developing in 1977 the Sullivan Principles, codes of conduct for human rights and equal opportunity for companies in the country. These principles are acknowledged as critical efforts to end discrimination in the workplace common in the apartheid system. Sullivan’s role in the eventual elimination of apartheid in South Africa was substantial. The principles were expanded over the next several years, and in 1999, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Sullivan formally announced the Global Sullivan Principles to the world.

Sullivan was nationally recognized as a civil rights leader and served as advisor to U.S. presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. This relationship of respect culminated in his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.

Although Sullivan’s work had been noted on other Pennsylvania Historical Markers by 2016, this giant of civil rights, the “Lion of Zion,” was recognized with his own marker in 2017 at the church where he pastored for nearly 40 years.


Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005.