Leon Sullivan

Sunday Gazette-Mail
December 26, 1965

The Sunday Gazette-Mail's
West Virginian for 1965

The Rev. Leon Sullivan praising Lord, passing ammunition to poor in Philadelphia

Photos by Francis Laping, text by Harry Ernst

The tall, skinny 12-year-old walked into a Charleston drugstore and sat down at the counter to order a Coke.

"Get up from there black boy and stand on your feet," the proprietor ordered. "You can't sit down here."

The year was 1934. His hometown had taught Leon Howard Sullivan the meaning of bigotry - a lesson that would help shape his life.

"It jolted me," the Sunday Gazette-Mail's West Virginian of the Year recalled, "and I pledged then to stand on my feet against bigotry the rest of my life."

In Philadelphia, Pa., 31 years later, the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan is still standing against bigotry. He has become one of the nation's most imaginative civil rights leaders who is demonstrating how the movement's militancy can carry Negroes beyond sit-ins into the mainstream of American life.

"Civil rights legislation merely gives Negroes a hunting license," observed Dr. Herbert E. Striner of the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. "But without ammunition it doesn't mean a thing.

"Negroes who lack the skills to get the jobs now open to them could conclude that civil rights is a lot of crap. But if they were trained, they could get the jobs because there are plenty of them available."

In the nation's fourth largest city, Mr. Sullivan is praising the Lord (he is pastor of Philadelphia's Zion Baptist Church) and passing the ammunition as the World War II song advised.

The ammunition is a unique self-help program that offers the impoverished up-to-date training for available jobs along with the basic education they require. Most participants are Negroes although whites and Puerto Ricans are welcomed.

OIC (Opportunities Industrialization Center) also provides them with something equally important - the self-confidence and pride in their race that bigotry has denied them.

"Most of all we are making citizens," the 43-year-old Sullivan explained. "In a month's time, people can become newborn - a whole new individual can emerge.

"We've broken a hundred cycles of poverty even among those who have lived off government or private welfare for three generations. Families have been reunited after the husbands have been trained and found jobs.

"For 100 years the Negro has been told what he can't do. We're now telling him what he can do and teaching him how - and doing in 18 weeks what people said couldn't be done in a year."

A big man (he is six-feet-five and weighs 235 pounds), Mr. Sullivan exudes self-confidence. His appearance in an OIC classroom resembles that of a coach at half-time. He assures students that they will win the game by studying hard and thus getting jobs. They smile happily and applaud, eager to play ball.

"Genius is color blind," he told one class. "Every person in this program knows he can do what anyone else can do commensurate with his abilities. You are premium people; industry is grabbing for you."

The OIC program thrives on Mr. Sullivan's enthusiasm for self-help. Its symbol is a skeleton key to open any door. Its motto is "We Help Ourselves." A sign on the wall of a classroom reads, "Let's Put Forth Our Best Effort Today."

His self-confidence and pride in being what he calls an Afro-American are contagious. Those who enter OIC training are given skills as well as confident hope that they, too, can escape from the dreary, brick boxes that are Philadelphia's slums.

The OIC program grew out of another pioneering campaign organized by Mr. Sullivan - a Negro boycott of large Philadelphia firms to convince them that they should hire more Negroes, who comprise about 27 per cent of the city's population of two million.

"Don't buy where you can't work" was the slogan of that campaign, which didn't win Mr. Sullivan the affection of the Chamber of Commerce even in the city of brotherly love.

The selective patronage movement opened up hundreds of jobs for Negroes as truck drivers, bank tellers and secretaries. But it wasn't enough to overcome decades of racial exile in the other America of fat rats and harsh poverty.

Keeping the lid on by writing meager welfare checks no longer worked in the summer of 1964. Negroes in Philadelphia and other Northern cities rioted, the historical reflex of oppressed peoples everywhere.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sullivan was trying to organize his OIC program. He had learned from the selective patronage campaign that there simply weren't enough qualified Negroes to fill the newly available jobs.

"I wanted to reach the unreached - the 85 per cent of Philadelphia's population who represent the explosive sector of the community," explained Mr. Sullivan, who is only paid his expenses as chairman of OIC's board.

"Either you prepare them for opportunities in America or their spirit of hopelessness and frustration will lead to riots..."

In two years OIC has become a model for the nation. Officials from Cities across the land and from abroad have come to study the program, which works like this:

An applicant (one of every three is on welfare) hears about OIC from a friend. He goes to its feeder station where he's interviewed and tested to find out what training would benefit him most.

Then he enters basic education courses that prepare him for training and getting a job. The subjects - which are adapted to fit his needs without treating him as a child - include English, arithmetic, grooming, how to take Civil Service and other examinations, how to apply for a job.

From the prevocational classes he goes to one of four OIC centers where the training has been carefully developed with private industry, which has provided expensive equipment as well as instructors, to assure that he learns up-to-date skills needed for available jobs.

An abandoned, 57-year-old police station in a tough, slum neighborhood was remodeled to serve as the first OIC center. It is now equipped to train teletype operators, cooks and waitresses in an attractive restaurant, chemical lab technicians, machine tool operators, sheet metal workers, draftsmen, power sewing machine operators and electronic assemblers.

Other centers specialize in training the poor to become secretaries, clerks, IBM machine operators, electricians, brick masons or to qualify for jobs in graphic arts, electronics and air conditioning-refrigeration.

"Some said that people didn't want training," Mr. Sullivan commented. "We have 6,000 waiting for training (about 1,000 persons have completed it and 1,000 are now being trained).

"They aren't given living allowances while they are being trained (which are provided under some government programs) and many of them walk 15 blocks to the centers.

"Our placement rate in jobs with industry is over 90 per cent - perhaps the highest in the country. We don't even know what the word dropout means. We call them discontinued pupils. Most of them leave because of family problems. Our dropout rate of less than 20 per cent is the lowest is the country."

With a staff of 300, OIC now operates on a $2 million annual budget. The federal government, through its antipoverty and retraining program, provides about 85 per cent of that amount. The rest comes from private foundations, Philadelphia firms, staff contributions, and from an annual fund-raising drive among the city's Negroes.

"This program is getting people interested in education and training so they can lift themselves out of their situation," observed Mrs. Rebecca Berman, a war-on-poverty VISTA volunteer who is assigned to OIC.

A great-grandmother, Mrs. Berman was a welfare case worker for 42 years. "We helped them with their financial situation but we did nothing constructive as is being done under this program," she said.

How does an outside expert evaluate Mr. Sullivan's OIC program?

"He has done a magnificent job," commented Dr. Striner, director of program development for the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Washington.

"He has put a hot foot under the school systems to overhaul their vocational education programs. His close tie-in with industry is hooking up supply with demand (training people for available jobs)," Striner said.

"You also can't overestimate the importance of a man like Sullivan to the Negro community. The Negro can lift himself by his own bootstraps in more ways than he thinks.

"Sullivan, by developing such a successful program, is changing the Negro's self-image. His program will have impact beyond Philadelphia."

The OIC program - conceived and implemented largely by Negroes to help other Negroes - is destroying such stereotypes as Negroes are inferior and indolent in the white community and in the Negro's own mind, Mr. Sullivan observed.

Some of the white businessmen, who Mr. Sullivan enraged by organizing Negro boycotts of their firms, are among the strongest supporters of OIC.

"He has the unusual ability to see the whole picture and implement new ideas," commented the Rev. Thomas J. Ritter, OIC's executive director who works closely with Mr. Sullivan. "He is able to pull together white and black, rich and poor, the learned and unlearned. In selling the program to businessmen, for example, he stressed its practical value to them instead of arguing that it would do good.

Mr. Sullivan points out the OIC will help lure new industry into the Philadelphia area by upgrading the skills of its labor force and will reduce welfare costs while creating more taxpayers.

But those aren't the goals which give him the most personal satisfaction. What matters to him in transforming the lives of individuals.

"I became a minister because I felt God wanted me to use any ability I had to help people become better individuals," Mr. Sullivan explained. "It is God's will not just to get men into Heaven but to get Heaven into men.

"People must help themselves. I want to see the militant spirit of the civil rights movement channeled into learning and productivity. The movement has broken down the doors; now we must prepare people to go through.

"They (OIC trainees) know we honestly mean their good and they believe they are going to get a job," Mr. Sullivan pointed out. "So we've got to make sure we're going to live up to that."

OIC's impressive beginning in Philadelphia demonstrates one way the militancy of the civil rights movement can help provide the bread and butter that is freedom's indispensable companion.

Mr. Sullivan's faith in self-help doesn't spring naturally from a comfortable childhood. His own life is a testimonial to the self-help philosophy he preaches.

Growing up in Charleston, where he was born on Oct. 16, 1922, helped shape the attitudes and values which have made Mr. Sullivan such an effective civil rights leader.

His hometown taught him not only the pains of poverty and bigotry, which fueled his militancy and determination to succeed, but his Negro teachers in the then segregated school system made him proud to be a Negro.

The kindness of his fellow white workers at the Naval Ordnance Plant during World War II also balanced his militancy with the realization that Negroes and whites can develop truly human relations if society only gives them the opportunity.

Mr. Sullivan's childhood is an example of the incredible strength of the Negro family.

He grew up in an unpaved alley (Washington Court off Bradford Street) - "one of those places where the white folks made the colored folks live," he observed during an interview in Philadelphia.

His parents separated when he was three years old. His late mother, Helen, who operated an elevator in the Security Building, later married Henry Parsons, who was a Janitor at the Virginian Theater.

"He was a wonderful man who did everything he could for me," said Mr. Sullivan, who returned to Charleston last year for Mr. Parsons' funeral. "I never heard him curse in my life. I used to help him clean the theater on holidays so he could get off earlier."

Mr. Sullivan was an only child who grew up in a big family. Several aunts, uncles and their children lived with the Parsons ("three or four children slept in a room").

"We were poor but we never went hungry," Mr. Sullivan commented. "My people always worked. During the depression, we got mustard greens out of the yard and tomatoes beside the railroad tracks that had fallen from boxcars.

"I was given strong encouragement to do the best I could with my life by my mother, a woman of strong character , and by my grandmother, Mrs. Carrie Powell, who was a very religious woman."

His playground as a child was the streets, alleys and New York Central Railroad tracks in the warehouse section of Charleston's East Side. When he was 13, he began writing poems that contain some of the basic ideas he is implementing today as a civil rights leader.

In 1939, Mr. Sullivan was graduated from Garnet High School where he was an outstanding student, played center on the basketball team (his long neck won him the nickname Geese) and tackle on the football team, and was elected governor of the Negro Boys State.

"Negro youths always walked down the left side of the street and whites down the right," he recalled. "The only time we met was on Halloween when we had a big fight."

He is proud of Kanawha County's smooth desegregation of its schools. But he thinks Negro youths in Northeastern cities today are missing the inspiration to succeed which was drilled into him by his Charleston teachers, who stressed the courage and triumphs of Negro history.

"In the South, you knew what you were fighting," he observed. "The problems were veiled by a great deal of racial hypocrisy in the Northeast."

Mr. Sullivan began fighting when he was 12 and was told that black boys couldn't sit down and drink their Cokes in Charleston drugstores.

In 1935 before sit-ins became fashionable, he began a systematic sit-in campaign against Charleston grills, ice cream parlors and movie theaters that refused to accommodate Negroes.

"I was usually put out but finally an ice cream parlor near Charleston High School apparently got tired of it and served me," he recalled. "I also was the first Negro to use the Kanawha County Public Library. And I would stand in line for movie tickets and when the girl refused to sell me one, I would just get back in line."

An athletic scholarship enabled Mr. Sullivan to attend West Virginia State College at Institute. But he lost the scholarship during his junior year after suffering a football injury that still makes it difficult for him to walk up stairs.

World War II opened up jobs for Negroes. So he went to work at the Naval Ordnance Plant (now owned by FMC Corp.) in South Charleston so he could finish his college education.

From 9 a. m. to 1 p.m., he attended classes at West Virginia State; from 4 p.m. to midnight, he worked at the plant. He arrived home at 1:30 a. m., studied until 3:30, then slept until 8.

"It was a continuous grind," Mr. Sullivan said. "My supervisor at the plant, who was a former West Virginia University football player, and the men I worked with gave me a lot of encouragement. They would let me sneak off and study or catnap when things slowed down.

He decided to become a minister during his junior year at West Virginia State where he majored in psychology and sociology; served as president of the student council, his senior class and fraternity; wrote poetry, short stories, plays and edited a creative writing journal; and recited his poems and made speeches in the chapel on Friday evenings.

The Rev. Moses Newsome of Charleston became his inspiration. "He schooled me, licensed me and gave me my real chance," said Mr. Sullivan, who served as pastor of small Baptist churches at Vandalia and Montgomery while still attending West Virginia State.

In 1943 he read that the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell was coming to Charleston to speak. He wrote Mr. Powell, now a Democratic Congressman from New York City, and asked him to also speak in Montgomery where his parents once lived.

Mr. Powell agreed. He liked young Sullivan and offered to help find him a job when he came to New York City on a scholarship to study under a graduate program in religious education sponsored jointly by Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary (where he received a master's degree).

On Mr. Powell's recommendation, the West Virginia student became the first Negro hired by the telephone company in New York City to collect coins from pay telephones. He also served as pastor of the small Fandell Presbyterian Church in Harlem and became active in the civil rights movement.

When Mr. Powell decided to run for Congress, he asked Mr. Sullivan to become an assistant pastor of his church (Abyssinia Baptist Church in Harlem).

Mr. Sullivan also met his wife, the former Grace Banks of Baltimore, Md., on a blind date in New York City. They have been married 21 years and have a seven-year-old boy and two girls, 5 and 2.

After completing his graduate work, Sullivan served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in South Orange, N. J., where he was the first Negro elected to its Council of Churches.

In 1950, he became pastor of Philadelphia's Zion Baptist Church, which is located in a moderate-income, high-crime area near Temple University. Under his leadership in the past five years, the church's membership has increased from 600 to 4,000. Average attendance is 2,000 with closed circuit TV cameras carrying the service to overflow auditoriums.

His church reflects Mr. Sullivan's self-help philosophy. It sponsors a large day care program for children, a home for the retired and a cooperative housing development.

Sullivan's work with youth, the aged, alcoholics, drug addicts and handicapped citizens (he learned sign language so he could communicate with the deaf) has won him national recognition.

In 1955, the Junior Chamber of Commerce selected him as one of the nation's 10 outstanding young men. In 1962, Life Magazine included him among 100 Americans who were described as "the takeover generation." West Virginia State presented him its 1956 Alumni Award and an honorary doctor of humanities degree in 1963.

Life's criteria for selecting Mr. Sullivan and the others were "tough, self-imposed standards of individual excellence; a zest for hard work; a dedication to something larger than private success; courage to act against old problems; boldness to try out new ideas and a hard-bitten, undaunted hopefulness about man."

That description certainly fits Mr. Sullivan, who knows such behavior frequently enrages those who disagree. Windows in his Philadelphia home have been broken and he has received threatening letters and telephone calls.

In Clarendon County, S. C., a house where he was supposed to be staying was shot into after he had organized a food lift to aid Negroes who were being fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes because they cared to seek their rights.

OIC's job training program is considered to be only a beginning by Mr. Sullivan. He plans to organize a city-wide adult education program with small classes meeting informally in homes to study basic education and health courses, Negro history, how to become smart consumers and to assist in neighborhood antipoverty projects.

Ultimately he envisions a massive campaign to rebuild Philadelphia's slums with OIC providing many of the skilled craftsmen from the ranks of the unemployed or impoverished.

"This isn't a time for talking but a time for doing," Mr. Sullivan observed. "I don't have time to become satisfied because there is so much left to be done. More children are born each day, they live longer and people are being automated out of jobs...

"My wife tells me I'm still fighting to get out of that alley (in Charleston)," he said.

His alley, however, is now considerably larger. In Philadelphia, the cradle of American independence 189 years ago, Mr. Sullivan is finding ways that American Negroes can belatedly achieve their independence, too.

As His Teachers Here Remember Him

By James A. Haught

"He was noted for being outspoken and, well - not eccentric, but he didn't go along with the group..."

"He was very race-conscious...But he never used his race as a badge..."

"He was a good student because he didn't just swallow everything the teacher said, hook, bobber and sinker..."

That's how Charlestonians remember Leon Howard Sullivan, the Philadelphia slum worker who has been chosen West Virginian for 1965 by the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

Sullivan, who grew up in an unpaved alley off Bradford Street, attended the old Garnet High School, worked his way through West Virginia State College, became an ordained minister, developed one of Philadelphia's largest churches, founded a self-help movement tor the underprivileged, was named one of the nation's 10 outstanding young men of 1955 and was cited by Life Magazine as an example of the "take-over generation" - is somewhat a hero to the Charlestonians who watched him grow up.

"He always was a genuinely fine person," says Mrs. John C. Norman, who was his teacher both in Bible class at First Baptist church and in Garnet High School. "Even when he was young you could tell he was going to be something special.

''He was a leader in high school. Once during practice for a class play, I was called away to the telephone, and when I came back Leon was directing the rehearsal with complete support by the other children. He always has had the kind of personality that attracts people."

Andrew H. Calloway, public relations director of W. Va. State College, was assistant Kanawha County school superintendent in charge of Negro schools when Sullivan was a student.

"He was a whiz at basketball and football," Galloway recalled. "He was so tall - about six-foot-five - that he could keep the basketball above everyone else. He'd just work his way in until he made a basket. Sometimes it took him five or six tries, because he was a little clumsy...

"He came from the other side of the tracks, but he never let that turn him down...He wrote poetry; a creative person...He was very race-conscious and proud of being a Negro, but he never used his race as a badge, as a way to get help. He knew he had to work for things himself.

"The other kids called him 'Geese' because of his long neck, and he didn't care much for that."

The Rev. Moses Newsome, who encouraged Sullivan's interest in the ministry and who led his ordination, said:

"He had to work to stay in school, and yet he was an above-average student. He got big roles in the school plays. He was noted for being outspoken and, well - not eccentric, but he didn't go along with the group. He had his own ideas and comments. There always was something a little different about him.

"He was a very responsible person. He grew up the hard way, so now he's helping others, who have to grow up the same way."

Mrs. William G. Moore, another teacher at Garnet High School, called "[sic]Sullivan "one of my best students."

"He was a very cooperative and ambitious boy - always trying to be first, trying to do I everything as correctly as possible," she said. "He loved to write little rhymes in the sixth grade."

Dr. Herman G. Canady, Sullivan's phychology [sic] advisor at State College, said he was the "sort of student who makes teaching worthwhile."

"He was always challenging in class - raising questions, requiring justification for everything that was said," he recalled. "He was the sort who makes good teachers because he keeps them on their toes. He was a good student because he didn't just swallow everything the teacher said, hook, bobber and sinker."

African Americans

West Virginia Archives and History