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Students tackle female academies in West Alabama as research query

Students listen to Lydia Ellington, Director of University of Alabama's Gorgas House.
Students listen to Lydia Ellington, Director of University of Alabama’s Gorgas House.

This year’s “The Nineteenth Century City” class reflects the decline in enrollment seen in some courses in the History department and elsewhere on campus. My colleagues and I are trying to sort through this.

In the meantime, I am determined to keep course content interesting. I think we’re off to a good start. Our class of seven students visited yesterday Gorgas House, an antebellum house on the University of Alabama’s campus. There, we learned about the Gorgas family, among them Mary and Jessie, two daughters who were permitted to obtain an education. That they did juxtaposes nicely with our interest in female academies, or young women in institutions of higher learning in the United States between the 1830s and 1920, the window to which historian Gunther Barth points as being a place to see emerging urban life.

After the visit to the Gorgas House, the students were given two letters written by Josiah Gorgas, former UA President. The recipients were his daughters who were studying at Sewanee, The University of the South in Tennessee.

In one letter, the elder Gorgas inquires about the outcome of a baseball game. This was intriguing as baseball is one of five things to which Barth points to announce the arrival of a modern urban culture in America. Barth states that it is around this game, which gradually becomes popular in the second half of the nineteenth century, that people of varying backgrounds learn to root for the same team, or share a “common humanity.”

This is one late-nineteenth century Alabama young woman's report card.
This is one late-nineteenth century Alabama young woman’s report card.

Throughout the semester, the students will be challenged to see how young educated women figure into this common humanity. Who gets included in this narrative, I’ve asked them. Who gets left out? How do we find meaning in a generation of young women who seem to be forerunners to feminist ideas, among them Amelia Gorgas, Josiah’s wife? She not only ran the University’s Library, post office and infirmary when her husband became ill, but continued to successfully raise six children into adulthood.

One aside: Dr. William Gorgas, one of the Gorgas children and the 22nd Surgeon General of the United States Army, appears to have been an avid fan of baseball as Gorgas House displays his lifetime pass to the American League games. He is best known for helping the United States combat the impact of yellow fever during the building of the Panama Canal at the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, like last year and the year prior, the semester-long query will culminate in a class project. This year, the students will present a curated exhibit of primary sources at the Gorgas House (this is where the technology piece will prove interesting because at present, there will be no video as we have done in the past. More to come on this issue). Victoria E. Ott, James A. Wood Associate Professor of History at Birmingham Southern University, will be our guest speaker.

Katherine Richter, Executive Director of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society, and Ian Crawford, House Manager of Jemison Manager, have generously offered their insight about Tuscaloosa’s founding families to help us get started. Richter also shared diplomas and report cards that will also be helpful. Heartfelt thanks to Lydia Ellington, Director of Gorgas House,
for her assistance, too.Reprinted from entry in my  The Nineteenth Century City blog

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