Celebrating Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan and OIC - Opportunities Industrialization Centers - 50 Years of Excellence


By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Sometimes it's not necessary for me to write everything from "scratch" - especially when the job has already been so beautifully done - as in the case of Explore PA History www.explorepahistory.com. 

You will probably be reading several pieces on Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan from me over the next few weeks.  It's because, not only was/is he a personal hero of mine, but I had the great good pleasure of meeting him, living near his church, and actually taking some of the courses (well, one course) at OIC - Opportunities Industrialization Center, when I first graduated from Lincoln University and thought I was going to be a fashion designer - but that's another story for another day. 

I was so impressed and motivated by this giant of a Black man, that I began working with the chronically unemployed, under the City of Philadelphia's PEDC program -  many of whom took courses with OIC in order to obtain job skills and certifications that made it possible for them to obtain higher level, career based jobs.

Today, OIC in Philadelphia is still in operation - though not at the same level of its original entity - and there are at least 44 still operating throughout the US; with  OIC International still operative in many positive, forward moving African Countries.  

Is there still a need for this organization?  YES!! Now, more than ever!  Are we doing everything we can do to maintain and expand OIC/Philly and OIC throughout the US - that's a good question.  There will be celebrations throughout the week, culminating with a gala on Saturday, June 14.  It is hoped that the founding city, Philadelphia, PA, will definitely see fit to maintain and expand this wonderful organization; and that other cities, such as BROOKLYN, NY (which used to have an OIC) will buy a clue and re-instate the programs, as well as provide avenues via OIC for greater access to training, green technology, computer trades, etc.  

In the interim, here is a brief overview of the life and contribution of Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan - my personal hero:


Opportunities Industrialization Centers Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text
Name: Opportunities Industrialization Centers
Region: Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley
County: Philadelphia
Marker Location: 19th and Oxford Sts., Philadelphia
Dedication Date: November 23, 1990
Behind the Marker

The Rev. Leon Sullivan, first Black man to become director of General Motors, talks to a group of preschool children who use his church as their kindergarten.
Reverend Leon Sullivan talks to a group of preschool children who use his church...
When Leon Sullivan arrived in Philadelphia in 1950, he was "flabbergasted" at the conditions surrounding Zion Baptist, where he was to be pastor. Having worked as Reverend Adam Clayton Powell's assistant at Abyssinian Baptist in New York, he recalled, "Harlem was bad enough but North Philadelphia, where I rode that day, beat Harlem in housing decay."

In Sullivan's eyes, an influx of migrants, some lured by defense-related jobs, had contributed to a community breakdown. To reach out to local teenagers, he started church athletic teams and drama groups, and began to minister outside the church, explaining, "Some people look for milk and honey in heaven, while I look for ham and eggs on earth, as well as for heaven eventually." His mission included a series of remarkably successful self-help programs targeting Philadelphia's black community, including the Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC).
City scene-roof tops
An industrial row house neighborhood, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1920.

Following a gang shooting of three boys in South Philadelphia in 1953, Sullivan helped form the Philadelphia Citizens" Committee Against Juvenile Delinquency and Its Causes, but soon realized that citizens" committees could only "dust off the slums while the forces that created and maintain them remain and expand." With Reverend Thomas Ritter's help, he organized a youth-employment program, helping to employ about 1,000 people a year. Racial discrimination, however, prevented many from finding jobs and limited the kinds of jobs that were offered.

In 1959, Sullivan organized a local picket line in support of markerMartin Luther King's campaign to open Southern lunch counters to Black people, and soon promoted local boycotts to "break down the Job Discrimination Walls of Jericho." His Selective Patronage program undertook 29 campaigns between 1959 and 1963, targeting the Tasty Baking Company, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Gulf and Sun Oil, and others. Sullivan also led "400 colored preachers" who identified companies with unsatisfactory Black employment records. Phoning a selected company, they would outline a demand for Black employment including skilled positions, using job turnover rates to determine feasible figures. If the company did not meet the demand after a specified period, typically four to six weeks, the preachers would call for a boycott from their pulpits the following Sunday. Demonstrating the economic power of Black consumers, the program directly generated some 2,000 skilled jobs and several thousand more indirectly.
Exterior, front
The Leon H. Sullivan Human Resources Center, 1415 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia,...

Sullivan recognized that in order to fill the skilled jobs now opening to Black Philadelphians

On January 24, 1964, a crowd of 8,000 attended the opening of the first Opportunities Industrialization Center, which soon offered courses in drafting, machine shop, sheet metal work, power machine operation, chemical laboratory techniques, electronics assembly, teletyping, and restaurant employment. The OIC soon opened additional centers, including one in West Philadelphia at South 52nd Street, dedicated in May 1965, marker which specialized in "merchandising." Yet another OIC center opened on Gerritt Street in South Philadelphia two months later.
Male workers pose for this photo and one of them holds an O.I.C. sign.
Erie Opportunities Industrialization Center crew working on the Bayfront Ballet...

Many potential trainees arrived at the OIC with poor basic skills and low self-esteem, often having dropped out of school. To address their needs, the OIC added a "Feeder Program," first established in an old synagogue, which taught incoming students basic literacy, mathematics, grooming, work habits, health, consumer skills, and innovative "minority-group history" classes to bolster self-respect. Here, too, a team of counselor-teachers referred students to a "Technical Skill" center, directly to a job, or to an on-the-job training position. Launched in 1966, the Adult Armchair Education program operated as a "do-it-yourself Feeder Program," holding classes in neighborhood homes and encouraging community improvement projects and links to neighborhood schools.

Success soon prompted federal involvement. In 1964, the Labor Department granted $458,000 for the Feeder program (soon increased to $558,000), and the Area Redevelopment Administration awarded another $50,000. The new federal Office of Economic Opportunity contributed $1,700,000 in 1965. The next year the Department of Labor gave $5,000,000 to establish centers in eight additional cities, including Erie and Harrisburg in Pennsylvania. In 1971, the OIC received $32,600,000 to become "a prime national contractor" for manpower services.

Leon Sullivan and Reverend Thomas Logan at the opening of Progress Plaza, Philadelphia 
Leon Sullivan and the Reverend Thomas Logan, Masonic Grand Master at Opening day at Progress Plaza, Broad street, Philadelphia.,...

Rev. Sullivan and President  Lyndon Baines Johnson at the beginning of The Great Society
This gave the national OIC greater control over local centers but threatened its community base. Two years later the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act favored more local control, forcing the OIC to compete with other providers and at times limiting it to partial services in contrast to the comprehensive "whole person" approach associated with the "Philadelphia program." Requirements for training stipends challenged the OIC's conviction that stipends would cause some to view the training as a job and lessen trainees" determination to succeed.

Reverend Leon Sullivan meets with President Nixon.
Reverend Leon Sullivan with President Richard Nixon and reporter John Hannah,...

Going beyond training, Sullivan also argued that Blacks should create their own jobs. In June 1962, he had asked church members to contribute $10 a week for 36 weeks into an investment co-operative, sharing profits between a charitable trust (40 percent), and shareholders (40 percent) and workers (20 percent). The cooperative built a garden apartment complex opened in 1966; the Progress Plaza on Broad Street marker dedicated in 1968; the Progress Aerospace Enterprises, which earned $2,600,00 in subcontracts from General Electric in 1968; and the Progress Garment Manufacturers supported by the ILGWU.

Despite the many self-help programs he created, the OIC remained for Sullivan "the main building block upon which all these other self-help programs must rise." Still active across the country, the OIC currently operates Pennsylvania centers in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, West Chester, Carlisle, Norristown, and McKeesport.

In the 1960s, the successful efforts of the Sullivan, the Philadelphia NAACP, and their allies in the fight against job discrimination in Philadelphia also attracted the attention of U.S. Department of Labor, which in 1967 adopted the "Philadelphia Plan" as a model for its national program to root out discrimination and prejudice in the construction industry.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon embraced a revised "Philadelphia Plan," which required federal contractors to hire of African-American employees by specific dates in order to combat institutionalized discrimination by specific skilled building trades unions. The plan was quickly extended to other cities. In doing so, Nixon's became the first administration to implement an "affirmative action" program at the federal level.
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More bragging about Rev. Sullivan - most people outside of Philadelphia, and a few who live here are not aware that he started a Black owned and run shopping center in the 60's which is still thriving and going strong today:

Our History

Reverend Dr. Leon H. Sullivan

Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan, Our Founder
The Reverend Dr. Leon H. Sullivan was born October 16, 1922, to Charles and Helen Sullivan in Washington Court,  in West Virginia. He was educated at Garnett High School, West Virginia University, Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary.
 Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan was unrivaled by few men in the 20th Century. During his lifetime, Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan impacted millions of people throughout the world, but particularly throughout the United States and the Continent of Africa, by advocating self-help principles of empowerment and community development and self reliance.
Under the mentorship of A. Phillip Randolph, who lead the premier March on Washington Movement that undergirded the quest for equal rights for minorities, particularly Blacks, the Reverend Dr. Sullivan developed his unique ideas on nonviolent, direct action and on the development of the community through community-based organizations. A.Phillip Randolph taught the Reverend  Dr. Sullivan, “how to organize…how to mobilize”.
In the late 1950′s and early 1960′s Reverend Dr. Sullivan initiated a successful “Selective Patronage” operation in Philadelphia to boycott companies that did not offer employment opportunities to black men and women. Later, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, would adopt the highly successful Selective Patronage program and transform it into the Operation Breadbasket program.

As job opportunities began to open up Reverend Dr. Sullivan realized that a trained workforce did not exist to fill them. In 1964, as a response to these newly opened opportunities, he founded the OIC, a skills training program providing training and retraining on a massive scale. Currently there are 60 active centers in 17 countries around the world. He also founded the Progress Investment Associates(PIA) and the Zion Non-profit Charitable Trust(ZNPCT) ZNPCT was established to fund housing, human services, educational and other non-profit ventures for inner city dwellers. Zion Gardens, an apartment complex, constructed in 1965, Progress Plaza a two million dollar shopping center, built in 1968, and the Progress Human Services Center, built in 1987, are just a few examples the venture undertaken by PIA and ZNPCT. The Reverend Dr. Sullivan also established inner-city retirement and assisted living complexes in Philadelphia and other cities throughout the United States , named Opportunities Towers.
Throughout the late 1990′s , the reverend Dr. Sullivan brought world and business leaders together to expand the successful Sullivan Principles into Global Sullivan Principles of Corporate Social Responsibility. In November, 1999 at a special meeting at the UN, the Reverend D. Sullivan and UN Secretary general Kofi Annan formally announced these new Principles before world and business leaders.
The Global Sullivan Principles will advance the cause of human rights and economic and social justice not only in Africa but everywhere in the Post-Cold war world there is the need for the advancement of human rights.
The Reverend Dr. Sullivan has been the recipient of many commendations throughout his life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President George Bush in 1999, In 1999 the Notre Dame Award, awarded to persons who have achieved international recognition for the contribution of the welfare of humanity the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award presented by Preside Clinton in 1999, the NAACP Spingarn Award, the Kappa Alpha Laurel Wreath and more than fifty doctoral degrees.
That said - there's a lot to celebrate and much to be proud of, and a great man to emulate - so make it your business to be part of the ceremonies as OIC launches its official 50th Anniversary. 

But don't just come to celebrate, come to learn and take back with you that which can be applied in your own communities.  We have giants who have blazed trails for us to follow - saying, "This is the path, walk ye in it."  And Leon Sullivan was certainly a giant among men who left mighty shoes to fill, but also selected some mighty people to carry the torch forward.

Stay Blessed &
Gloria Dulan-Wilson

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