On the Shoulders of Giants

Long before the George Floyd protests ignited around the country and the world, Germantown’s own Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan led a charge for the rights of African Americans.

Doctor Reverend Leon Sullivan, as published in the February 17, 1988 Germantown Courier.

Given the worldwide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is a good time to also reflect on other protests that have helped shape the history of Philadelphia, and those who led them. And although many often think of the 1960s as the primary era of organized protests against racism, they were by no means the first.

One largely forgotten but significant protest occurred in 1959, when the Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan and 400 members of the clergy began their practice of “selective patronage.” This consisted of pressuring larger companies to either hire more African American workers to higher, well-paid positions in a company or face their products being boycotted by the African American community.

Reverend Sullivan gives a tour of Progress Industrial park while holding four year-old Roger Williams. He is surrounded by a group of investors. (Sept 23, 1972) Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives.

One company facing such measures was the Tasty Baking Company, (popularly called “Tastykake” after its line of snack items) then located on Hunting Park Avenue. Rev. Dr. Sullivan demanded that Tastykake interview young African American workers for positions as “driver-salesmen,” a position which gave workers the chance to earn commissions on top of their normal salaries.

Tastykake balked, and the boycott began in June. The boycott also included 150 grocery stores owned by African Americans, who vowed to stop selling Tastykake products until the company entered into negotiations with the ministers. In August, Tastykake began negotiations, and the boycott was lifted.

As a direct result of the boycott, African American drivers were given fixed routes, and African American women were given access to jobs at the company traditionally held by white women. This forward momentum was continued into the 1960s, with the establishment of the Allegheny West Community Project (later Development Corporation and now Foundation) by Paul Kaiser, the then head of the Tasty Baking Company.

On March 25, 1969, Reverend Leon Sullivan (center) met with President Richard Nixon to discuss plans for extending OIC programs to Africa. Later that year, Nixon implemented Sullivan’s “Philadelphia Plan,” which required federal contractors in the construction industry to hire minority workers, in cities across the nation. That year the Philadelphia Plan became first significant federal affirmative action program in American history. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

After the boycott and for the rest of his life, Reverend Doctor Sullivan continued to be a force for change. In 1968, he opened his Progress Garment Manufacturing Company, an all African-American owned and operated factory located at 2000 Windrim Avenue, as part of his Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) program which he founded in 1964.

The company saw immediate success, as the first contract it was awarded was made with The Villagers, the largest women’s clothing manufacturer in America at the time. The Progress Company quickly became a large employer, with 100 workers forecast to make women’s clothing.

Though Reverend Doctor Sullivan passed away in 2001, his legacy of activism for the improvement of African American lives continues in the success of his OIC program, which currently operates centers in 22 states and 20 centers internationally.

About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at library@germantownhistory.org.

East Falls and Germantown share a proud colonial history. Learn more at nwlocalpaper.com.

Photos courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown.

About Alex Bartlett 9 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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