Reprinted from The Nineteenth Century City blog:
The Fall semester has begun and I’ve had the first class meeting for my “The Nineteenth Century City” course. The students know that we will make female academies in West Alabama our class project. Pictured here is some jewelry worn by young antebellum women students who attended school in the area during the nineteenth century.
This jewelry is housed at the Old Tavern in downtown Tuscaloosa. Katherine Richter, Executive Director of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society, was kind enough to point out the jewelry to me. I described my recent visit to see her and Ian Crawford of Jemison Mansion in an earlier blog posting.
We will use a small body of evidence – such jewelry, diplomas, report cards, and Census documents on the founding families of Tuscaloosa, to learn more about this population of young women who were pursuing degrees even before the University of Alabama opened in 1831.
Why does it matter? How do these objects push our thinking about emerging urban life? Well, first, we get to wonder about how their living conditions, interests, and family life differed from students in later generations. We will definitely think about social and political scene of their day. It’s always interesting to see how much has changed and stayed the same.
We might also get to critically imagine how an urbanizing Tuscaloosa looked as the nineteenth century matured. The presence of the Black Warrior River contributed to traffic in the area even after the state capital moved to Montgomery in the mid-1840s.
Even though people today still think of Tuscaloosa as being little more than a college football town, these young women reflect a changing America as seen in emerging urban life.
To what do we look to see such life? Gunther Barth’s City People, one of our required readings, will offer a few things to consider. Like earlier iterations of this course, we will write short essays and combine what we learn individually into one script and make a digital presentation for public consumption. Rather than a documentary or music video, we might consider a curated photo exhibit.
A possible field trip to Huntsville is being discussed, permitting us to include the female academies in that area into the discussion. That effort will be helped by my earlier research on children of mixed race who lived in that city before and after the war. Some of them were young women who attended Wilberforce. Many of their letters are houses in the Septimus Cabaniss Papers at UA’s Hoole Special Collections Library. I discuss their lives in Chapter Five of my new book.