Born as Grace Banks in Baltimore, Maryland in 1924, Mrs. Sullivan graduated from Beaver College with a B.A. in Government and History and an M.A. in Education and Leadership – earning both degrees while raising her three children. She founded and developed the Philadelphia Miniversity, an education program for adults that required no educational prerequisites, and she also served on the boards of the Public Broadcast System, the William Penn Foundation and the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH).
In his book Moving Mountains, Leon H. Sullivan described his wife: “My wife ‘Amazing Grace’ whom I could never credit or thank enough shared my vision and my struggles, walking with me every step of the way. As a mother, wife and helper, she has no equal… For all important things achieved in this world, there are those who pay a special price, and this is true for Grace Sullivan. No one will ever know the sacrifices she made in standing by me and helping me with all the things I have attempted to do. As I zigzagged across America and the world it was Grace who maintained a home, cared for our children, and in untold ways made it possible for me to continue on… Neither I nor the world will ever be able to repay the debt that we owe to Grace Sullivan. Without her, the things we were able to achieve would never have been done.”
In 1941, Grace and Leon Sullivan met in Harlem on a blind date that her sister Olga set up. Leon was a friend of Olga’s boyfriend. They dated for three months when Grace was accepted to NYU. She ran home to tell her mother, and Leon was sitting on their couch, waiting to propose when she got there. She set down her school books and did not pick them back up until her youngest child, Hope, was 6 years old in 1969.
As a constant supporter of Leon’s work in Africa, Grace would usually remain at home to watch all of the grandchildren, allowing Hope, Howard, and Julie to all help their father with his work on the continent. In Hope’s words, “She was born to be a grandmother and loved them all dearly.”
Seen as an integral part of humanitarian efforts worldwide, President Jimmy Carter spoke of “Amazing Grace” in a speech at Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1980:
“Reverend Sullivan said at a public event not too long ago that it was nice to have a President who knew all the words to ’Amazing Grace.’ [Laughter] Well, I’m not sure that anybody knows all the words to ‘Amazing Grace,’ because every now and then, kind of quietly, I compose a new verse just for myself. And I think that Leon probably composed the third verse. He says, as you know, ‘Through many dangers, toils and shares I have already come …. ‘ You know what comes next: ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe this far and Grace will lead me home.’ So, I told Leon to just leave me and Grace here and to go on to South Africa and that we would take care of things while he was gone.”
Grace Sullivan passed away peacefully on March 15, 2011 in Scottsdale, Arizona. We remember her as a loving mother and grandmother, as a community leader, and most importantly, as the silent supporter and the cape that allowed Reverend Sullivan to push forward with all of his projects and initiatives.