Back in 2016, the historic 1901 John Sunday House at the corner of Romana and Reus streets — once home to one of Pensacola’s most significant black historic figures — was demolished to make way for a new “affordable luxury” townhome development.
On Friday, after struggling to pre-sell units for more than two years, Mobile-based developer Dean Parker and his Segen Ventures finally broke ground on Girard Place.
Who’s Girard, you ask?
Redevelopment projects often pay tribute to what came before, invoking the names of local figures, features, and places. The Hallmark Townhomes on South E Street were named for the Hallmark School that previously occupied the site. The Junction at West Hill in Belmont-DeVilliers tips its hat to a historic name for the neighborhood. The Old East King Cottages incorporate the name of the underlying historic land tract.
Parker chose a different route: he named Girard Place for a wealthy, racist slaveowner from his hometown of Philadelphia.
Stephen Girard was born in France, but he settled in Philadelphia in 1776, the same year the United States declared its independence. Over the next half-century, he built a massive fortune as a trader, banker, landowner, drug smuggler, and slaver.
In addition to slaves in his Philadelphia household, Girard ran a plantation in Louisiana. When he died, Girard’s will specified that the “upwards of 30” slaves at the plantation should not be freed, but instead given to his friend, Judge Henry Bree.
But rumors have long persisted that he was not only a slave owner but a slave trader. In 1906, more than 70 years after his death, underground cells were found beneath his onetime home:
Subway workmen, digging for the foundation of the new tunnel station today, uncovered, at a depth of 100 feet, what is plainly an old slave prison. The pen is composed of narrow cells in three tiers, with three foot corridors between. Heavy iron bars covered the windows and in each cell were manacle supports.Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1906
Directly above the prison is the house of the late Stephen Girard, an eccentric rich man, who gave Girard college to Philadelphia. It has long been handed down in local history that Girard drove a brisk slave trade and that the basis of his gigantic fortune came from that source.
Girard has often been lauded for leaving much of his fortune to charitable causes, but even that act was marked by his racist views. With the same aforementioned will, Girard established a boarding school for orphans, but restricted enrollment to white males only, with ten-feet-high walls to keep everyone else out. It took more than 100 years, mass protests, a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a fourteen-year legal battle before the school admitted its first nonwhite student in 1968.
As with many historical figures, Girard’s legacy is complicated. He lived and died in an era where slavery was legal and racial discrimination was commonplace. Nonetheless, when Girard had the opportunity to free his slaves, he chose not to — a move that was denounced even by contemporary observers, as was recorded in a biography published the year after his death:
That part of his Will respecting the slaves on his Louisiana Estate has been justly and warmly condemned, as at total variance with the character of philanthropy that has been so lavishly ascribed to him. It must be confessed, that there is here a blemish on his fame, which it is not easy to obliterate or justify; for he could as easily have bequeathed a hundred thousand dollars to Judge Bree, and emancipated his slaves on the Louisiana Estate, as have left them in the horrors of perpetual bondage.Stephen Simpson, Biography of Stephen Girard, with His Will Affixed, 1832.
To be clear: Dean Parker has every right to name his development after whomever or whatever he wants. But so too do those who will reside in his half-million dollar “affordable luxury” townhomes have a right to know the truth about the man whose name they bear.