As we celebrate our nation’s independence this Fourth of July, let us remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans who didn’t gain their independence in 1776.
It would be 89 more years before the Thirteenth Amendment freed African-Americans from the chains of human slavery, and another hundred years beyond that before the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act began to unravel the Jim Crow laws which effectively made African-Americans second-class citizens.
Incredibly, despite such adversity, African-Americans have been shaping our nation from the moment of its inception. One of them was John Sunday of Pensacola.
Sunday represented the best our country has to offer; an embodiment of American perseverance and grit. The biracial son of a white man and his slave, Sunday was born in Pensacola in 1838. After rebel forces abandoned Pensacola during the Civil War, Sunday volunteered to serve his country and joined the U.S. Army. Serving under General and future president Ulysses S. Grant, Sunday eventually rose to the rank of First Sergeant in service with the 6th Corps de Afrique Infantry and 78th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry.
After the war, Sunday returned to Pensacola, where he served as a state legislator and city alderman during Reconstruction. Trained as a wheelwright, Sunday built up a substantial construction business. We don’t fully know the scope of Sunday’s work in rebuilding Pensacola, though his firm built hundreds of houses, some of which still survive today.
Sunday’s business success allowed him to amass significant land holdings and to become one of the wealthiest African-American men not only in the state or in the South, but in the nation. Black author Booker T. Washington in 1907 estimated Sunday’s worth at $125,000 — more than $3 million in today’s money — a truly remarkable sum for an African-American man in the Jim Crow South. When those Jim Crow laws forced black businesses out of Pensacola’s downtown core, Sunday helped build up the Belmont-Devilliers area as a center for black commerce. Literally — his company helped build many of the buildings.
In 1901, at the age of 63, Sunday built his dream home at 302 West Romana Street, in a near-downtown Pensacola neighborhood called the Tanyard. Crafted with Sunday’s six decades of experience, it has stood for 115 years, including the last ten, during which its current owners have essentially abandoned it. Now, as Circuit Court Judge Gary Bergosh ruled Friday, it may be torn down any day, to be replaced with 27 generic and uninspired townhomes.
The developers, led by Pensacola attorney Charles Liberis and bolstered by the support of city officials like Mayor Ashton Hayward, have tried to minimize the significance of Sunday and his house from the start. As with so many things in American life, this is about money — the money to be made from the sale of the townhomes, the tax revenue the townhomes and their occupants will generate. As it turns out, even in 2016, the legacy of a black man, no matter how significant, can’t compete with that.
John Sunday is as important a part of Pensacola’s history as Andrew Jackson or W.D. Chipley or Bernardo de Gálvez — but no monument exists to Sunday as does those men. Sunday and his legacy are as significant as those of Clara Barkley Dorr or E.A. Perry or any of the other white folks whose homes we’ve somehow managed to preserve. There are no streets or parks or buildings named in Sunday’s honor.
The truth is that the racism which has pervaded and in some ways defined our country for hundreds of years persists in the way we’ve recorded our history. There are few mentions of Sunday in the books written by those who have chronicled Pensacola over the years. Instead, we’ve pieced Sunday’s story together through oral histories and family papers and public records.
We, as a community, will regret tearing down John Sunday’s house one day, in the same way we now regret tearing down the San Carlos Hotel. For a city which prides itself on its 450+ years of history, we can be awfully shortsighted sometimes. The difference between Pensacola and cities like Charleston and Savannah, which make millions off of their history ever year, is simple: they are serious about it. They care about protecting and preserving their history. They don’t let developers bypass the system and demolish historic houses without hearings. As long as we do, we’ll be a second-class city at best.
If there’s one good thing that’s come out of this sorry saga, though, it’s that more people know about John Sunday’s story today than at any point in recent memory. It’s a thoroughly American story with many chapters — John Sunday, the veteran; John Sunday, the city leader; John Sunday, the builder.
To me, most of all, it’s the story of John Sunday, the self-made man who defied all odds and worked hard for decades to achieve the American dream and build a life and legacy for himself and his family. It’s an incredible story that embodies everything I love about the American spirit. And it’s a story that — house or no house — is just now beginning to be told.