Before the Sullivan Foundation and New York Southern Society, Sullivan’s legacy was maintained by a group of his friends
The modern Sullivan Foundation has many functions—running retreats and conferences, starting initiatives on member campuses, sponsoring faculty service projects—but the Foundation is still best known for the one thing it did when it all began.
The Sullivan Award has been honoring students since 1925—the first being presented only at the George Peabody College (now a part of Vanderbilt University) in Nashville.
The award memorializes Algernon Sydney Sullivan, of course. But Sullivan died in 1887, a full 38 years before his namesake award came into being. How was the desire to remember him so strong even so long after he was gone?
Sullivan succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 61. He had never enjoyed particularly good health, so his death was not much of a surprise to those that knew him. It was, however, a cause for unanimous public grief. In New York City, where Sullivan lived out the latter half of his life, the New York Times even ran a full tribute, saying:
The announcement that Algernon Sydney Sullivan is dead will prove a great shock and a cause of honest regret not only to his friends and acquaintances, who are many, but to the public at large, for he was looked upon as a man of great ability, of a kindness of heart that could not be measured, of never-ending desire to promote such projects as were for the benefit of the people, and more than all, he was considered a politician who was absolutely pure.
The Times wasn’t the only paper to memorialize him—many other New York papers ran their own tributes, along with others as far away as New Orleans. The world didn’t want to forget Sullivan, so a group of his friends, associates, and admirers formed the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Memorial Committee in order to ensure his memory would live on.
Over the course of some three-and-a-half decades, the committee did a number of different things to remember Sullivan. In 1906, they erected a public horse fountain bearing his portrait at Van Courtlandt Park. It is one of only a very few horse fountains still in existence in New York—and it still works. The committee also gave a bust of Sullivan to his college fraternity. They presented memorial plaques to New York law schools and other civic institutions.
None of these remembrances would do what the committee had set out to do, however—make sure Sullivan would live on long after all of them were gone. In 1925, they found their solution, and the Sullivan Award was born.
The committee partnered with the New York Southern Society to get the award off the ground, and a year later—their work finally done—the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Memorial Committee was disbanded.
Five years after that, in 1930, Sullivan’s wife, Mary Mildred, and son, George, secured the charter for the Foundation, to ensure the Award would go on even after their own deaths. Nearly 90 years later, it appears they succeeded.