A forgotten pioneer: ‘The Jackie Robinson of retail’

Len Lear
Posted 1/2/24

Curtis W. Sisco, Sr was "handsome enough to model his own clothes."

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A forgotten pioneer: ‘The Jackie Robinson of retail’


This column, originally published Aug. 30, 2013, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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 and cleaning, and my father, who only had an eighth-grade education, worked virtually 24/7 in a series of small shops so that our basic needs would be met. I 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 hurt. I was also the only kid on our choose-up football team who had to tackle and block opponents without the 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.

Since money was so scarce, my mother’s dresses looked like Salvation Army rejects. But I do remember one time when we were 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.”

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., a former police officer who in 1974 purchased Rowell’s Department Store,  becoming the first Black owner of a department store anywhere in the U.S. – a fact which prompted some to refer to him as the “Jackie Robinson of retail” and then-President Richard Nixon to call him "Minority Businessman of the Year." 

It may be impossible for today’s young people to believe, but at the time, Chelten Avenue rivaled downtown Philadelphia for exclusive shopping. 

Rowell’s, which was built in 1903 by C.A. Rowell, was the nicest department store in Northwest Philadelphia in its heyday. But by 1974, when Sisco bought it, the neighborhood was in decline and the store had fallen on harder times. Sisco tried valiantly to revive the sickly patient, but it passed on to that great shopping center in the sky after just two years. 

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

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, so people in this area will not have to go downtown to Wanamaker’s, Strawbridge’s and Gimbels.”

Sisco was the youngest of 12 children born to a Virginia sharecropper. He moved to Philadelphia after high school, and after a two-year stint with the Army in Korea, 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.

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.

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. This way, he explained, 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 Study every Tuesday night.

Sisco, who helped mentor many younger Black merchants, opened four men's clothing stores before purchasing Rowell's. As an adjunct professor of marketing and merchandising at Drexel, he also taught buying and merchandising and, with Mercia Grassi, a Drexel University marketing professor, ran seminars for small businesses at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

In his later years, Sisco became a buyer and fashion consultant at Torre Men's Fashions, 1217 S. Broad St. He died in July of 1994 at the age of 64, 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.