America’s First Black-Owned Shopping Plaza Celebrates 50 Years

Progress Plaza in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is the country's first and oldest Black-owned shopping plaza. It was built and financed in 1968 by Rev. Leon Sullivan, a legendary business leader, civil rights advocate, and humanitarian.
Sullivan, who died in 2001, was a well-accomplished entrepreneur who had many other businesses including a garment manufacturing company and Progress Aerospace Enterprises, the first Black-owned aerospace company.

But his shopping plaza, which is now known as Sullivan Progress Plaza and cost $2 million to build, has always been his most notable enterprise. Because the plaza is the nation’s first shopping center owned and operated by an African American, it has become quite historic. "This remains a symbol of Black accomplishment and steadfastness," says  Wendell Whitlock, chairman emeritus of Progress Investment Associates, Inc.

In fact, the shopping center is so significant that it has even received a marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. In addition, a number of former U.S. Presidents and presidential candidates have visited the site including Richard Nixon in 1968 and Barack Obama in 2008.

Surviving through the years

As can be imagined, the 1960s was a very difficult time for African Americans - let alone those who wanted to be entrepreneurs. But after finally being established, Sullivan Progress Plaza slowly grew to a stabilizing point.

Donald “Ducky” Birts, owner of Ducky’s Dashery, was the first entrepreneur to sign a contract to lease retail space at the plaza. This helped win over the confidence from other business owners like Jim Brady Shoes who also moved into the commercial strip.

Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the shopping plaza remained fully occupied by retailers. And in 1999, United Bank of Philadelphia, the city’s only African-American owned bank, opened a branch in the plaza. This created a chain reaction for other financial institutions like First Pennsylvania Bank to do the same.

In 2009, the plaza completed a $22 million renovation and a new supermarket was funded in part by federal, state and city funding including Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a program championed by U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans.

The shopping plaza still exists today located at 1501 N. Broad Street in Philadelphia. In fact, on October 27, 2018, it celebrated it's 50th anniversary with a formal dedication that was attended by community members, elected officials and civic leaders.

Learn more about the plaza at