The sight of a backhoe sitting atop the ruins of the John Sunday House this weekend was heartbreaking to the hundreds of Pensacolians who had banded together to try to save the 115-year-old home.
It was heartbreaking to me, too.
As I learned about John Sunday through my reporting I became enthralled with his uniquely American story and convinced that his house must be preserved as a testament to Pensacola’s African-American history. Born to an enslaved woman and her white master, Sunday served in the Civil War alongside General Ulysses S. Grant before coming home to serve as a state legislator and city official during Reconstruction. In the heart of the Jim Crow South, Sunday somehow built a successful construction business that made him one of the wealthiest black men in America. He later led the establishment of the Belmont-Devilliers area as a black commercial district.
Beyond Sunday’s legacy, the house was one the few remaining original structures in the Tanyard, the historically black neighborhood west of downtown which has been decimated over the past four decades by redevelopment.
The case for preservation couldn’t have been stronger.
So why couldn’t we save it? Here’s the cold, hard, sad truth:
As a community, we didn’t care enough about this house because it was built and owned by a black man. If the home had been built by a white Confederate general, we’d have saved it. How do I know? Because we’ve been there and done that. Look no further than the Perry House at Palafox and Wright streets, onetime home to Confederate general Edward Aylesworth Perry, who would go on to serve as governor of Florida. Of course, Perry didn’t build that house. Hell, he never even owned it — his wife did. And Perry wasn’t even a Pensacola native — he was from Massachusetts. Somehow, though, Pensacola managed to save the house, which served for many years as a Scottish Rite Temple before being purchased by First Methodist Church in 2008.
Something tells me that if we found out Tristan de Luna or Andrew Jackson had camped at the site of the John Sunday House, we the community would have tripped over ourselves to protect the property from redevelopment. Can anyone imagine the outcry if someone suggested razing the Barkley House, Dorr House, Old Christ Church, or any of the other priceless historic structures that we’ve managed to save over the years?
Instead, we the community let a developer bypass our historic preservation processes to get his way. We let our mayor and our city attorney help him do it. And we let the John Sunday House get demolished on the day of the Blue Angels’ Pensacola Beach Airshow, which might as well be a sacred holiday in this city.
Since we couldn’t save the Sunday House, the least we can do is to be honest when we talk about the reason why. It wasn’t because nobody cared — they did. It wasn’t because the law was on the developer’s side — it wasn’t. It was because in 2016, we are still a city which values its European history more than its African-American history. We are still a city in which thousands will rise up to defend the Confederate Battle Flag — a racist, treasonous symbol — but could care less about the fate of a successful black man’s house.
I’m heartbroken about the loss of the John Sunday House, but I’m even more heartbroken about what it confirms about this city which I love with all my heart: when it comes to race issues, we have a long, long way to go.