School History and Historical Collections

Girard College was formed by an unprecedented act of philanthropy shown by French immigrant and merchant, Stephen Girard. At the time of his death in 1831, Stephen Girard was the richest man in America and his endowment for Girard College was, up to that point, the largest private charitable donation in American history.

In the middle of the 19th century, Philadelphia was at the forefront of creating innovative institutions designed to solve specific societal challenges: Eastern State Penitentiary was built to tackle criminal justice reform, the Pennsylvania Hospital was established to care for patients with mental illnesses, and the Franklin Institute was designed to expand upon scientific knowledge.

Inspired by the institutions around him, Stephen Girard sought to address the challenge of educating young Americans for the future. He directed the city of Philadelphia to use his money to build a boarding school for poor, orphaned or fatherless white boys so that they might be prepared for the trades and professions of their era. Girard College opened on January 1, 1848.

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 and female students were enrolled beginning in the 1980s.

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.

Learn more about the history of Girard College through the collections preserved in Founder's Hall.