Historical Markers
Stephen Girard Historical Marker
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Stephen Girard

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Girard Park, 21st and Shunk Sts., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
October 1993

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas of a man wearing a suit, seated at a table.
Stephen Girard, by James Reid Lambdin, c. 1832-1889.
"My deeds must be my life," Stephen Girard once said. "When I am dead my actions must speak for me." A self-made man of extraordinary achievement, Stephen Girard typified the iconoclastic philanthropist in the new American nation. His commercial genius provided the resources for humanitarian relief and public charity on an unprecedented scale.

As a contemporary of Philadelphia's two Benjamins–markerFranklinand markerRush -Girard (1750-1831) had an equally profound impact on education and civic culture in the first capital city. From a personal fortune estimated at $9 million at the time of his death, Girard endowed numerous charitable institutions and enterprises, including a controversial bequest to establish a boarding school for poor, orphan boys that continues to carry his name: Girard College.

Exterior, a busy street with horse and carriage, pedestrians, and other buildings.
"Girard's Bank, late the Bank of the United States, in Third Street,"...
Born in France in 1750, Stephen Girard rose from humble origins to become one of the wealthiest men in America. Girard left his native land as a teenager, intent on a life on the sea. By the 1770s he was a prosperous ship's captain with a lucrative mercantile trade between New York, New Orleans, and the West Indies.

When a British naval blockade prevented his return to New York, Girard settled in Philadelphia and through a series of prudent business decisions amassed a sizable fortune by war's end. Known to be impatient, even abrupt, in his personal relationships, he could be unfailingly generous in times of public crisis.

Even as his personal life was thrown into turmoil following his wife Mary's mental breakdown in 1785, Girard successfully maintained a series of commercial and civic activities. As scores of residents, including President George Washington, fled Philadelphia during the dreaded 1793 yellow fever outbreak, Girard remained behind to help care for the ill and the dying. In addition to committing personal funds for public relief, Girard personally assisted in removing the dead and counseling their families. Such generosity only enhanced his public reputation.

The Girard College, drawn by T.U. Walter; on stone by J.C. Wild, 1840.
Lithograph of Girard College, Philadelphia, PA, 1840.
A man of commerce, Girard was a strong supporter of the First and Second Banks of the United States. After the First Bank's charter expired in 1811, Girard purchased its building, renamed the enterprise Girard's Bank, and then proceeded to amass a second fortune through banking.

To avoid insolvency during the War of 1812 Girard extended a line of credit to the federal government estimated at $8 million, thereby securing his reputation as the man who financed the war. The gamble paid off, the war concluded on favorable terms, and national leaders hailed Girard as a hero.

With his faithful slave, Hannah, by his side, Stephen Girard died on December 26, 1831, the victim of scarlet fever outbreak in Philadelphia. Rich and poor, the powerful and the anonymous, attended the funeral and interment in Holy Trinity cemetery. In death, as in life, Stephen Girard's charitable work continued. His will granted Hannah her freedom and an income for the rest of her life, and provided ample resources for several public charities in the city.

Birds eye view of Girard College and Philadelphia.
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Birds eye view of Girard College and Philadelphia, Smith Brothers and Company,...
Mindful of his own childhood circumstances, and the want and neglect that plagued Philadelphia's working poor, Girard made his most significant bequest the endowment of a boarding school for "poor, white, male orphans." Though a private institution, the school was to be administered by the municipal Board of City Trusts, an association that would have far-reaching legal implications in the 1960s. Opened in 1848 as Girard College, along a street that still bears the benefactor's name, the institution was the clearest evidence of Stephen Girard's faith in education to better the lives of the poor.

Girard College was not a college in the traditional sense, but rather an elementary and high school devoted to a practical education in "suitable occupations, as those of agriculture, navigation, arts and mechanical trades and manufactures." Those who demonstrated a capacity for further refinement would be exposed to grammar, the sciences, basic philosophy, and foreign language.

The curriculum reflected Girard's directive that young boys be educated in "facts and things rather than words and signs." By the end of the nineteenth century, more than 1,200 orphan boys–all of them white–were enrolled annually on the forty-five acre campus, dominated by its Greek-style Founder's Hall. An imposing iron gate and fence erected around the perimeter of the property separated the grounds from the surrounding neighborhood.
Procession Around the Girard College in Philadelphia, led by Members of the St. Thomas Episcopal Church 1965.
A protest march outside of Girard College led by Members of the St. Thomas Episcopal...

Girard's will faced stiff challenges over then next century and a half. In 1844 the United States Supreme Court upheld the will over the objections of Girard's family and their attorney, Daniel Webster. In the mid-1960s, civil rights activists led by Cecil B. Moore targeted the school as a symbol of continued racial segregation and inequality. Street protests, picketing and a prolonged lawsuit led to a 1967 court ruling that broke Girard's will and mandated the marker admission of black students to the school.

In 2007, 80 percent of Girard's student body (700-plus students) were African American, and women, who were first admitted in 1983, comprised 53 percent of the student population. The educational program now emphasizes technology education and pre-college preparation.

The controversies of the 1960s have somewhat overshadowed Stephen Girard's remarkable legacy in education and public philanthropy. Like twentieth-century industrialist markerMilton S. Hershey, who endowed a similar orphans school that bears his name, Stephen Girard was a man of deeds devoted to civic philanthropy that offered a practical advantage to disadvantaged. But like Hershey, Girard also wore the racial blinders of his own time.
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