By Elizabeth Laurent, former Director of Historical Resources
Girard College holds a unique place in the story of American education.
Stephen Girard's Philanthropy
Girard College was formed by an unprecedented act of American philanthropy. The school was constructed and endowed from the fortune of Stephen Girard (1750 - 1831), a French immigrant who was probably the richest man in America at the time of his death. The money he left to create Girard College was the largest private charitable donation up to that time in American history.
Educating Poor Children
Girard directed the city to use his enormous gift to build a school for poor, orphaned or fatherless white boys who would live on campus. His vision was unique in reaching an entirely unserved population and preparing them for useful, productive lives.
Girard's vision for the school can best be understood in the context of early 19th century Philadelphia. The city was at the forefront of creating innovative American institutions designed to solve a specific social challenge: Eastern State Penitentiary (humane incarceration), the Pennsylvania Hospital (mental illness), the Pennsylvania Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (disabilities), the Franklin Institute (scientific knowledge), among many others. Girard chose to dedicate his immense fortune to help educate Americans for the future.
The school's unique mission guaranteed that it would become a lightning rod for controversy surrounding the important social issues of each era including religious freedom, and racial and gender diversity. Desegregation occurred at Girard when male students of color were enrolled beginning in 1968. Female students were enrolled in the 1980s.
The ways Girard College has changed over the years reflects the ways America has changed. In its first century, for example, the school prepared boys for the trades and professions of their era with academic, mechanical-trades and apprenticeship training. Today we prepare boys and girls for college and to lead successful adult lives.
Stephen Girard, born more than 250 years ago, could not have imagined the ways that our country, its citizens and their roles would change over time. He couldn't imagine a female justice of the Supreme Court or an African-American U. S. president. The great triumph of Girard College today has been its adaptation to changes in American society while maintaining Stephen Girard's original mission to educate children to become productive citizens.