Hall of Fame for men who shone brightly
Four remarkable individuals will be inducted into the 2012 Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame on October 21: solar power pioneer Frank Shuman, civil rights leader Leon Sullivan, business and community leader Ed Kelly, and astronaut Chris Ferguson. Two of these honorees have been well-covered in these pages recently: When Ed Kelly passed away in August his obituary noted his many contributions to Northeast Philadelphia; when Chris Ferguson commanded the final flight of NASA’s Shuttle program in July 2011, this milestone event was reported in detail both here and throughout the nation.
The two other inductees are a different story. Frank Shuman has been largely forgotten, despite his many innovations; while Leon Sullivan’s reputation is worldwide, his connection to Northeast Philadelphia is not generally known.
Frank Shuman, who was born in 1862 in Brooklyn, had little formal education but possessed a creative, inventive mind and a keen interest in science. He moved to Philadelphia in 1891 at the suggestion of his uncle, who was president of the Tacony Iron Works, to work on the William Penn statue that was being constructed at the Iron Works for placement atop Philadelphia’s City Hall.
While living in Tacony in the 1890s and early 1900s, Shuman developed numerous inventions and created various companies to develop them. Among his most successful inventions was a process for making wire-glass, an innovation that made him a wealthy man and won him the prestigious John Scott Medal from the Franklin Institute.
Shuman’s most notable innovation, however, was the solar engine, an invention that used solar heat to run an internal combustion engine. Working in the laboratory and back yard of his home at Ditman and Disston streets in Tacony, which is still standing, he developed the technology and began giving public demonstrations of the solar engine in 1907.
Shuman obtained a patent for the process in 1911 and was hired by the British government to supervise construction of the world’s first solar thermal power station near Cairo, Egypt. Designed to pump water from the Nile River to nearby cotton fields, the solar powered irrigation plant had a grand opening in June 1913.
However, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 doomed the project. The plant’s engineers and operators had to return home and the plant was shut down and never revived. Shuman returned to Tacony in 1914 and died there in 1918. His 1914 statement may yet prove prophetic: “One thing I feel sure of, and that is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun or revert to barbarism when oil becomes extinct.”
The Rev. Leon Sullivan
Leon Sullivan was born in Charleston, W. Va., in 1922 and raised in one of the poorest sections of the city. At the age of 12, he tried to purchase a soda in a local drugstore and was refused service because of his color. This incident inspired his lifelong fight against racial prejudice.
Sullivan became a Baptist minister at age 18. In 1943, Adam Clayton Powell convinced Sullivan to move to New York City, where he attended the Union Theological Seminary and later Columbia University, where he received a master's degree in religion in 1947. In 1950, he was appointed pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where he served until 1988. Known as “the Lion of Zion,” he helped increase the church’s membership from 600 to 6,000, making it one of the largest congregations in America.
In 1956, Leon Sullivan and his family were among the original residents of Greenbelt Knoll, a new residential housing development in Holmesburg that was the first planned interracial community in Philadelphia and one of the first in the nation. A state historical marker at the entrance to the development at Holme Avenue and Longford Lane attests to its significance.
Sullivan was a leader in the civil rights movement throughout his life and worked continually to improve economic opportunities for those suffering from poverty and oppression. In 1964, he founded Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC) of America, a job-training and life-skills program. Now an international organization, OIC has helped more than two million disadvantaged and under-skilled people worldwide.
When Sullivan joined the Board of Directors of General Motors in 1971, he became the first African-American board member of a major corporation. In 1977, in response to apartheid in South Africa, he developed a code of conduct, known as the “Sullivan Principles,” for companies operating in that country. The Sullivan Principles eventually gained wide acceptance and are credited with helping to end apartheid in South Africa.
In 1992, Sullivan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He died in 2001.
Jack McCarthy is an archival/historical consultant and project director for the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, at Holy Family University. For more information, contact Jack McCarthy at email@example.com or by phone at 215-824-1636. Tickets cost $25.