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Pensacola Honors John Sunday

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Sandra Averhart
/
WUWF Public Media

John Sunday, who was born a slave in the 1830s, became one of Pensacola’s most prominent residents. Just five years ago, efforts to save Sunday’s historic 1901 home were unsuccessful. But, the campaign was effective in educating the community about his legacy and honors are now coming his way.

In 2019, the Pensacola City Council proclaimed his birthday, March 20, as John Sunday Day. Just a couple weeks ago, the panel voted unanimously in favor of a proposal from Mayor Grover Robinson to name the plaza north of City Hall in his honor.

“This is so amazing. I am so excited. I wanted to thank the mayor for bringing it forward,” said Councilwoman Ann Hill before the vote during their Feb. 11 meeting.

“This is fantastic and it’s one of those things, it kind of deepens connections,” added Council President Jared Moore.

Newly elected Councilwoman Teniadé Broughton had to abstain from the vote since she is founder and President of the John Sunday Society.

“I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Mayor presented that proposal, particularly because we know John Sunday’s story,” Broughton said. “We know that he hasn’t been recognized as much as other historical figures in the city.”

Broughton was pleased to point out that the naming of the plaza grew out of initial plans to name a small plot on Spring Street after Sunday.

“But, after city parks (department) started, I guess, reading more about who he was they decided that he was so significant to the city, they presented the idea to name the plaza,” she said. “And, I think that’s beautiful, because ultimately John Sunday once owned the land that is now City Hall.”

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Historic image of prominent Pensacola businessman John Sunday, who became one of the first African-Americans from the area to hold state and local office.

In 1874, during the Reconstruction period, Sunday became one of the first Blacks elected to the Florida House of Representatives and became one of Pensacola’s first Black city council members.

His story begins in 1838, when was born to the slave woman Jinny and John Sunday, Sr., who owned them.

“Soon after his father’s murder, they were freed and John Sunday was able to get an apprenticeship through his Godfather, which is where he learned carpentry,” Broughton explained. “During the Civil War, he fought for the Union, with the U.S. Colored Troops. He came back home and started his business in building.”

It’s important to remember, says Broughton, that before the Civil War, enslaved black people were developing skills and essentially did the work to build the community for free.

“During Reconstruction, we see a lot of African-Americans - now as freed men that are dominating the carpentry, bricks, just really rebuilding this place, rebuilding this city during and after Reconstruction and that is how John Sunday created his wealth,” she said. “We know Booker T. Washington mentions him in his chapter about Pensacola in “The Negro and Business.”

In short, John Sunday was very industrious and, at one time, was believed to be one of the richest Black men in the south, possibly the nation. He owned several businesses, including a grocery store.

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Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
This house built by John Sunday is part of Pensacola's Eastside Neighborhood Black History Trail.

Additionally, he acquired a lot of land and built numerous houses and commercial buildings throughout the city. Some of the structures remain standing today. One on North Hayne Street is part of Pensacola’s Eastside Neighborhood Black History Trail.

Many in the community have known about and promoted Sunday’s contribution to Pensacola.

But, in 2016, his story gained more notoriety when preservationists started a grassroots effort to halt demolition of the house he built in 1901, and lived in until his death in 1925, at the corner of Romana and Reus streets.

“Hello, my name is Henry Fisher and the title of our play is 'John Sunday, Jr.: A Self-made Man,'" said the N.B. Cook Elementary School of the Arts fifth-grader back in 2017.

Henry and his classmates created the play about Sunday for their “Taking a Stand in History” History Fair project.

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Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
Students at N.B. Cook Elementary School of the Arts recreate portions of their History Fair play about John Sunday.

“Oh, that’s not good,” begins the dialogue in an opening scene from the play. “This newspaper article says they’re demolishing the John Sunday House.”

Although the play is launched with current events, it digs deep into the archives to present a fuller picture of Sunday’s life and legacy; from taking a stand to fight in the Civil War, helping to rebuild the community, establishing successful businesses, and holding political office. Not lost on the students was the post-Reconstruction effort to take back newly attained freedoms for Blacks and the need for Sunday to take a stand, again.

“He unified the entire Black community of Pensacola when the Jim Crow laws were forcing all of them and their businesses out of the Palafox area,” said one of the students, referencing Sunday’s leadership in establishing the Black business district in the Belmont DeVilliers area.

Also, John Sunday, Jr. inspired a lot of people who were African American,” added another of the young students.  Yet another stated, “I believe that his legacy was to inspire others to stand out against their masters and try and become free men, so slavery wouldn’t continue for his great-great-grandchildren and they would know a better world.”

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Credit West Florida Historic Trust
This is the home John Sunday built in 1901 and lived in until his death in 1925. The historic home was demolished in 2016, despite efforts to save it.

“This man didn’t ask for anything; he made his way,” said John Sunday’s great-great-granddaughter Pearl Perkins, speaking to WEAR-TV about the city’s plans to acknowledge him with the plaza naming.

“For us to be here to see that something is being named in his honor is quite appreciative. There’s nothing else in Pensacola with his name on it,” she added.

“It just shows how our work was so successful, how we the John Sunday Society and the family made sure we didn’t let his name be forgotten,” declared Broughton about the effort of the John Sunday Society.

She points to the fact that when they were trying to save the Sunday home back in 2016, their hashtag was #SaveJohnSunday.

“So it wasn’t just about the house,” she proclaimed. “It was about his memory, it was about his influence in the city, it’s about his accomplishments and his excellence. And, with that vote, I believe we saved John Sunday.”

To commemorate the naming of the plaza, the city plans to install a granite base and bronze plaque honoring John Sunday. No date has yet been set.