Stephen Girard documentary casts light on forgotten VIP

A short documentary film about the life of Stephen Girard will premiere in Philadelphia Tuesday. The French-born banker played pivotal roles in the development of his adoptive city and the country.

In 1790, just a few years after America won its independence, a yellow fever epidemic swept through Philadelphia. The city was the nation’s capital at the time, and most people of means left town. During that exodus, the 43-year-old Girard established a hospital and worked valiantly to keep the city operating.

Later, as one of the country’s richest men, Girard almost single-handedly funded American forces in the War of 1812.

But the influential man is barely remembered now.

“He had an accent, he was shy and reserved, and he had a bad eye. He couldn’t see out of his right eye,” said filmmaker Sam Katz. “He was not in government, so he was not a founding father. And he was from Philadelphia. Philadelphians tend to get lost in the national discourse.”

Katz was commissioned to make the film by the administration of the school Girard established in his will. Even the president of Girard College admits that she knew little of Stephen Girard when she took the job.

Girard founded the college as a place for white, orphaned boys. The legacy of that mandate became an important chapter in the 20th-century civil rights struggle.

“A lot of people don’t understand how national the desegregation movement was,” said Girard College President Autumn Graves, who, as an African-American woman, bucks the school’s original mandate. “It was quite an extraordinary effort to desegregate this school.”

Graves says the film will be part of an educational campaign to raise awareness about Girard.

For years, Katz has been working on a multipart documentary about the entire history of Philadelphia. This short film, which is not part of the larger project, will screen at the Independence Seaport Museum on Tuesday evening.

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