It’s not every day you see a second line in Pensacola, Fla. The venerable tradition is more closely associated with New Orleans, where the participatory parades celebrate funerals, weddings, and everything in between.
On Sunday, nearly 100 people spilled out onto the streets of downtown Pensacola to parade in celebration of John Sunday, the African-American veteran, businessman, and legislator whose 115-year-old house was recently demolished.
Sunday built the house, which was located at Reus and Romana streets, in 1901 and lived there until his death in 1925. It was demolished in July after a months-long grassroots effort to save the house came up short, with attorney and developer Charles Liberis using the court system to bypass the city’s historical preservation process. Liberis plans to build 27 townhomes on the 1.5-acre site.
Mobile’s Excelsior Band led parade-goers from St. Joseph Catholic Church — built on land once owned by Sunday — to the heap of wood, bricks, and other rubble at 302 West Romana Street, where the once-stately Sunday House stood until recently. Charred timbers are still visible in the pile, evidence of a mysterious fire in the 1930s which burned out the home’s last black residents.
There, the band’s proud, defiant music was almost enough to drown out the sound of the industrial sprinklers keeping the heap constantly wet to prevent hazardous asbestos fibers from going airborne. Days after the house was razed, Maverick Demolition was cited by state environmental officials after investigators found potential asbestos violations at the site.
New Orleans’ second line tradition is named for the revelers that fell in behind the musicians and other official “first line” paraders, forming a “second line” at the rear. An amalgam of military-style brass band parades and the traditional dance and music brought to the city by enslaved Africans, second lines have become a staple of New Orleans culture, with parades taking place nearly every Sunday of the year.
“This second line is our way to celebrate and remember John Sunday and his legacy,” said Teníadé Broughton, one of the organizers of the second line and vice president of the John Sunday Society. “While he was known in pockets of the community, we are resurrecting the John Sunday story, from being hidden or erased and introducing him to the public and future generations. We want to make sure he’s never forgotten again.”
“There’s a proverb that says, until lions have their own historians the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” added Broughton. “The John Sunday Society are lions.”
Born to an enslaved black woman and her white owner, Sunday fought on the Union side of the Civil War under General Ulysses S. Grant before returning to Pensacola, where he served as a city alderman and state legislator during Reconstruction. Sunday also built up a successful construction business which by the turn of the century had made him one of the nation’s wealthiest African-Americans, with famed author Booker T. Washington estimating his fortune at $125,000 — nearly $3 million in today’s dollars.
Sunday’s other business interested included a grocery store, restaurant, and furniture store, and after Jim Crow laws forced black businesses out of the city’s downtown core, he led the establishment of the Belmont-Devilliers neighborhood as a center for black commerce.
Several of Sunday’s descendants made up the “first line” of the parade, including Pearl Perkins, Sunday’s great-great-granddaughter, who is writing a book about Sunday compiled from her family’s oral histories.
Perkins’ grandmother grew up in the home during the final years of John Sunday’s life. She said that while looking at the pile of rubble which used to be the Sunday family home still makes her feel sick, she is optimistic about the future.
“There will be some good that will come from all of this,” Perkins said. “John Sunday literally carried the city of Pensacola on his shoulders with his accomplishments. He truly loved the city of Pensacola. This is the first of many annual celebrations honoring John Sunday and his story.”
Organizers hope to stage more events like Sunday’s second line which highlight the role of John Sunday and other African-Americans in Pensacola’s history.
“These gatherings take our history beyond museums,” Broughton said. “We’re an example of cultural continuity and linking the past to the present by living our history.”