13 Black Philadelphians Who Were Trailblazers

From Ed Bradley to Ethel D. Allen to Robert N.C. Nix Sr. and Jr., a compendium of locals who paved the way in education, business, politics and more.

Clockwise from top left: CBS correspondent Ed Bradley at the 1980 Republican National Convention (AP Photo); Dr. Ethel D. Allen (NIH/Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine); U.S. Rep. Robert N.C. Nix Sr.; Mayor Wilson Goode (Charles Krupa | AP); Rev. Leon Sullivan with President Nixon (Henry Burroughs | AP); Pa. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr. (Peter Morgan | AP)

Clockwise from top left: CBS correspondent Ed Bradley at the 1980 Republican National Convention (AP Photo); Dr. Ethel D. Allen (NIH/Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine); U.S. Rep. Robert N.C. Nix Sr.; Mayor Wilson Goode (Charles Krupa | AP); Rev. Leon Sullivan with President Nixon (Henry Burroughs | AP); Pa. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr. (Peter Morgan | AP).

Sure, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step — but somebody has to take that step. In honor of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., here’s a timeline of a dozen-plus black Philadelphians who paved the way in education, business, politics and more.

1920: Raymond Pace Alexander becomes the Wharton School’s first black graduate. With his wife, fellow Penn grad Sadie Alexander, the lawyer and civil rights activist will work with the NAACP to convince the state legislature to ban racial discrimination in Pennsylvania hotels, theaters, restaurants and other public accommodations. In 1960, he’ll become the first black judge on the city’s Court of Common Pleas.

1953: A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., hired by Philly D.A. Richardson Dilworth, becomes the first black lawyer to argue on behalf of the Commonwealth.

1958: Robert N.C. Nix Sr. wins a special election and becomes the first black legislator to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. House of Representatives.

1968: After a long, bitter battle through the courts led by activist Cecil B. Moore, four boys become the first black students to enroll at Girard College. The will of the school’s founder, Colonial financier Stephen Girard, stated that it should provide education only to “poor, white, male orphans.”

1968: Social activist Leon Sullivan, pastor of Zion Baptist Church, opens Progress Plaza, the nation’s first black-owned and –developed shopping center. In 1971, Sullivan will be named to the board of directors of General Motors — the first black member of the board of any major corporation.

1971: Republican physician Ethel D. Allen becomes the first black woman elected to City Council. She goes on to become secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and gives the seconding speech for presidential nominee Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention.

1976: In the midst of the city’s celebration of the Bicentennial, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the first museum built by a municipality to commemorate black history, opens near Independence Hall.

1977: Ed Bradley becomes the first black White House correspondent, for CBS News.

1980: Joseph Coleman becomes Philly’s first black City Council president.

1983: W. Wilson Goode defeats former city mayor Frank Rizzo in the Democratic primary and Republican John Egan in the general election to become Philadelphia’s first black mayor.

1984: Robert N.C. Nix Jr.  becomes chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — the first black chief justice of any state’s highest court.

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