Owned Northwest’s finest department store – A forgotten pioneer: ‘The Jackie Robinson of retail’

Local Life August 30, 2013 2 Comments

The always-fashionable Curtis W. Sisco, Sr., became the nation’s first African American owner of a department store when the former police officer purchased C.A. Rowell’s Department Store at the southeast corner of Chelten and Germantown Avenues in Germantown in 1974.

by Len Lear

My four siblings and I grew up in a rowhouse in West Oak Lane where there were no luxuries. My mother spent all her time cooking, cleaning, etc., and my father, who only had an eighth grade education in South Philly, worked virtually 24/7 in a series of small shops so that our basic needs would be met. I clearly recall being the only kid on the neighborhood baseball team without a glove of my own. If I could not borrow one, I played with my bare hands. Those line drives really hurt.

And I was the only kid on our choose-up football team who had to tackle and block opponents without benefit of a helmet or any other equipment. Needless to say, it stopped being fun after my head banged against the ground the first few times.

And since money was so scarce, my mother’s dresses looked like Salvation Army rejects. But I do remember one time when we going to attend a wedding of a relative, and she said, “Just this one time, I am going to save up and buy a nice dress, and I’m going to buy it at Rowell’s because that is the nicest department store by far in Northwest Philly.”

This flashback popped into my mind last week after I found the photo accompanying this article in the basement of my house. It is of Curtis W. Sisco, Sr., who in 1974 purchased Rowell’s Department Store, which was opened in 1903 by a man named C.A. Rowell at the southeast corner of Chelten and Germantown Avenues. (It may be impossible for today’s young people to believe, but Chelten Avenue emerged as a shopping street to rival Chestnut and Market streets in the late 19th century, after the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads extended lines to the area and built stations where their routes crossed the street.)

By the time Sisco purchased the department store, the neighborhood was already in serious decline, and while he tried valiantly to revive the sickly patient, it passed on to that great shopping center in the sky after just two years. Today the old Rowell building contains a Walgreens drugstore on its street floor; its upper floors have been renovated as office space and are being leased by the Philadelphia Suburban Development Corporation.

I remember meeting Sisco, who was born in 1930, a few months after he purchased Rowell’s. I had been assigned to do an article on him for the Philadelphia Tribune. I discovered a handsome, charming, dapper and articulate man who was graying around the temples.

Curtis Sisco was handsome enough to model his own clothing. (Photo by Len Lear)

When I told him what my mother had said about Rowell’s in the late 1940s, he flashed a big smile. “I’ve heard that from so many people,” he said. “My goal is to bring it back to that kind of reputation, so people in this area will not have to go downtown to Wanamaker’s, Strawbridge’s and Gimbel’s.”

African American entrepreneurs were as rare as Phillies’ World Series victories at that time. In fact, Sisco was the first black owner of a department store anywhere in the U.S., and as a result, some of his admirers even called Sisco the “Jackie Robinson of retail,” which was the ultimate compliment.

Although he loved Philadelphia, Sisco was the youngest of 12 children born to a Virginia sharecropper. He moved to Philly after high school, and after a two-year stint with the Army in Korea, he studied tailoring and clothing design at the Berean Institute of Technology. He earned an associate’s degree and eventually opened his own tailor shop and cleaning establishment.

Interestingly, before he was in retail, he was a Philadelphia police motorcycle officer from 1960 to 1969, performing with the precision drill team at the annual Hero Scholarship Thrill Show. That career was ended by a motorcycle accident, but Sisco remained close to former police commissioner and mayor, Frank L. Rizzo, whom he admired greatly. “I have actually gotten into arguments with other blacks whenever I say something positive about Mayor Rizzo,” he told me, “but I can’t turn my back on the man because I know he is a good man and very loyal.”

A man of the church, Sisco also initiated the idea of community-based medical centers on church property, under which churches would rent out “dead” space to house doctors, and the church “could take in $15,000-$25,000 a year for providing the necessary services to their congregations.” Sisco was a single parent to his children after his wife died in 1973, and he taught Bible Studies every Tuesday night.

Sisco, who also helped mentor many younger black merchants, opened four men’s clothing stores before purchasing Rowell’s. In fact, then-President Richard M. Nixon cited him in 1974 as “Minority Businessman of the Year.” As an adjunct professor of marketing and merchandising at Drexel, Sisco also taught buying and merchandising and, with Mercia Grassi, Drexel University marketing professor, ran seminars for small businesses at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

In his later years, Sisco was a buyer and fashion consultant at Torre Men’s Fashions, 1217 S. Broad St. He died at the age of 64 in July of 1994 and was survived by a son, Cecil; a daughter, Bernetta; two sisters, Elsie Young and Helen Thompson; a granddaughter and several nieces and nephews.

Another son, Curtis Jr., raised by his father, became the first black Anglican Episcopalian priest to be ordained in Philadelphia in 36 years. He presided over St. Andrew’s Church, 36th and Baring Streets. Curtis Jr. died a year and a half before his father did. I am sure that very few Philadelphians today know anything about Curtis Sisco, which is a shame because he was a pioneer who was an impressive man in both his private and public life. He is well worth remembering.

Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.

  • Wendell A. Merriweather

    Wow, this is a shame no one knows of this story. My uncle is and was a Great Man!

  • swatter

    I saw him once and was impressed.