By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — Educating and building the self-esteem of Black children through the use of animation is the mission of Leo D. Sullivan and his wife Ethelyn O. Stewart Sullivan.
A Black trailblazer in Hollywood as a producer, director and animator, Leo Sullivan started Leo Sullivan Multimedia, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides animated interactive content on the internet through its channels, Afrokids.com and Afrokids.TV to help build Black children’s sense of self-esteem and cultural awareness.
The channel, which is streamed on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Android TV has been enlightening and uplifting thousands of young minds since it started.
“I was born in Lockhert, Texas, a small town located between two Burma Shave signs,” Sullivan said with a laugh. “I was always an artist.
As a child, Sullivan, now 82, said he could recall seeing only one Black character on the movie screen as a youth.
“That character was Little Black Sambo,” Sullivan said. “All I remember is that he was little and he was Black.”
He said the animation bug bit him in high school.
“I wondered how they drew those cartoon images and who were the people doing it,” he said. “I started researching the field. I liked cartoons in general including Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. Eventually I met all of those animators who drew these cartoons.”
Sullivan moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s and was eventually hired at the Bob Clampett Studios in Hollywood.
“I worked on ‘Beanie and Cecil’, a children’s cartoon show,” he said. “I started out as an errand boy. After two months, I got promoted to the animation board.”
His wife Ethel said that Afrokids.com and AfroKids.TV’s mission teaches positive images, dialogue and they learn from it.
“We have a cartoon called Growing Pains,” she said. “One of the lessons it teaches is that young boys should respect their elders.”
As one of the few Black animators in Hollywood, Sullivan has worked for a number of Hollywood studios over the years.
He has been credited with work on 38 animated series including “The Incredible Hulk,” “Ironman,” “The Fantastic Four,” “Spiderman,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “Flash Gordon,” “Muhammad Ali, I Am the Greatest,” two of the “Fat Albert” animation series and dozens of others.
Sullivan also has produced and directed numerous educational videos targeted at kids from 5 to 17 years old that have been distributed nationally to schools and libraries. Sullivan has also managed animation studios in China, the Philippines and the United States.
He was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1979 and 1991 along with legendary animator Floyd Norman. Sullivan received an Emmy in 1992 as a timing director on the “Tiny Toons” cartoon series that was produced by Stephen Spielberg.
His wife Ethelyn O. Stewart Sullivan is a retired deputy chief of budget for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in El Segundo. She serves as the webmistress for the Afrokids.com and Afrokids.tv websites and also works as a colorist and editor.
She also serves as chief financial officer of Leo Sullivan Multimedia, Inc.
Working alongside the duo is legendary animator Floyd Norman who worked at Disney studios but joined Sullivan to co-found Vignette Films. Vignette Films produced six animated films and was one of the first companies to produce films on the subject of Black history.
“We also created the first Soul Train logo when Don Cornelius moved the show from Chicago to Los Angeles,” said Sullivan, referring to the legendary popular dance show that dominated the airwaves for 35 years.
“It was a little train that spelled out the word ‘Soul Train,” Sullivan recalls. “We did the first version of the animated Soul Train logo that ran for six years.”
Leo Sullivan Multimedia’s roster of shows include an animated adventure series (Afrokids® Adventures), a series of historical people and events, Afrocentric rhymes and storytelling as well as e-books, games and puppets.
Leo Sullivan Multimedia Foundation, a nonprofit organization, provides workshops in introductory animation and game development that incorporates science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which allows students to explore greater depths of all of the subjects by utilizing the skills learned.
“These skills are going to be required in order for today’s students to be tomorrow’s global leaders,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he is gratified to see more Black animators entering the business.
“They will hopefully create more content for Black kids and their parents,” he said.
“Afrokids is seen all over the world, including in Asia and Europe and we’re working on Africa,” Sullivan said.