The demolition of the historic John Sunday House last summer meant the loss of a piece of Pensacola’s history.
While efforts to save it were unsuccessful, the public debate helped to inform today’s generation about this once very prominent African-American.
In observance of Black History Month, WUWF reached to a group of fifth-grade students from N.B. Cook Elementary School of the Arts, who took what they learned about the man and turned it into short play for this year’s History Fair.
The John Sunday House was built in 1901 on West Romana Street, downtown. One of the students, ten-year old Henry Fisher and his family used to walk past it every time they attended a Pensacola Blue Wahoos’ baseball game.
“Whenever his house was getting demolished I heard about it on the news and we researched it some,” Henry said. “And whenever we saw that the topic was “Taking A Stand” for this year’s history fair, we thought it was a good topic to choose.”
As another group rehearsed down the hall, Henry and his group mates – all of whom are ten years old - recently gathered in the N.B. Cook drama room to talk about their play and deliver an encore performance.
“My name is Henry Fisher and the title of our play is ‘John Sunday, Jr.: A Self-Made Man’ began Henry, with the others also introducing themselves. “Hello, I’m Kieran Kelly. Hello, my name is Julia Gibson. Hello, I’m Katie Raines.”
On a modest set of two chairs and a lamp-table, representing the inside of the historic Sunday home, their story begins.
They start with news of the plans to demolish the John Sunday House and begin to reveal the story behind the man, who was one of the most influential African American leaders in Pensacola in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. “He took a stand for the black community, when they were being discriminated against,” explained Kieran in his role as narrator.
John Sunday, Jr. was born in 1838, the youngest child of John Sunday, Sr. and his enslaved wife Jinny. When John, Jr. was just one year old, his father was murdered in their home. By then, John Sr. had already signed legal documents granting his wife and children their freedom. But, he left no inheritance for them.
As the play continues, John Sunday, Jr. is talking with his mother about heading off to work. “I wish I could provide for you better, so you didn’t have to work so hard at such a young age,” says Julia, portraying Jinny.
Henry, who played Sunday, replies to his mother that it’s okay.
“I enjoy going to Warrington and learning how to make cabinets. Mr. Vaughn is a fair man and I’m thankful for the opportunity to work and get an education. Not all men of color are so lucky. I’m free and able to work for an honest wage in the south where still so many are slaves.”
During the Civil War, Sunday took a stand against slavery and joined the Union Army. He met his future wife Seraphine, while serving in Louisiana.
During the Reconstruction period, he thrived; acquiring property and using his carpentry skills to build over 100 houses. He also donated land for the construction of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
As the play continues, the narrator explains how John Sunday was instrumental in rebuilding the city of Pensacola and how in 1873, he started to think about a career in politics.
“Seraphine, I’m delighted to tell you that I’ve been elected to the Florida State Legislature. I’m honored to be the second black legislator from Escambia County,” Sunday tells his wife Seraphine, who was portrayed by Katie.
“John, that is wonderful news,” she says. “You’ll really be able to make difference in our community and our state from such a high position.”
He agrees, adding that he had dreamed of taking a more active role in our government.
But, after Reconstruction, blacks in Pensacola were kicked out of elected office and forced to move their businesses out of the Palafox District. Instead of giving up, Sunday invited other black businesses to join him in moving to the Belmont-DeVilliers area, which became the center of black commerce in the city.
The students, who invested numerous hours on research, marked this time in local history as yet another example of Sunday “taking a stand.” It helped to secure his legacy.
“He unified the entire black community of Pensacola when Jim Crow laws were forcing businesses out of the Palafox area, with a place for their businesses, when they were being forced to move them,” said Katie.
“Also, John Sunday, Jr. inspired a lot of people who were African American,” said Henry. “He showed a lot of them that they could do things that other white people could.
Julia continued, “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-great-grandchildren and they would know a better world.”
“If you were a John Sunday descendant you would be respected,” added Kieran. “He has a great legacy.”
This group’s play about the Sunday House finished in second place in the Escambia School District History Fair in the performance category.
Jean Odom is the professional drama coordinator for N.B. Cook, who guided development of this play and the one that finished first.
Understandably, she was delighted by all their good work. But, Odom said she was particularly proud of the John Sunday House team’s effort to dig deep into the life of a prominent individual, who had an impact on their own hometown.
“To go and find local people and take the history way back to the time of the civil war and then to bring it up to the present, and you saw the knowledge that they acquired beyond their play in their research,” Odom said.
Getting back to the focus of the play, which was the demolition of the historic John Sunday House; it was razed in July of 2016. But the students’ after note was a positive one.
“Since its demolition, the city council has proposed a public review for any structure of more than 100 years old before tearing it down,” said Henry as the play closed. “That is ‘taking a stand’ that John Sunday would be proud of.”