taking a map


Good visit to the University of Alabama’s Cartographic Lab yesterday. Wayne Craig Remington, the lab’s director, and his grad assistant Alex Fries, shared their knowledge of maps with us as we prepare to “map” Tuscaloosa and the state of Alabama in time for the city and state’s bicentennial. I am hoping the students will put as much time into making the maps as they do in conducting the research for them.


I am especially excited about maps as I was the navigator when my grandparents would take us on childhood road trips from Miami to Lake Okeechobee. It always amazed me to see us roll into back road towns on which I had my little finger.

Even though I now use a GPS, I still have the atlas I purchased eighteen years ago as a young adult. I have traveled across this country twice, once by myself. The atlas is very marked up and held together with packing tape. I used it before people had smartphones. Back then, there were fewer hazards with driving, something I no longer like.


I also enjoyed yesterday learning about how much work Remington has put into building UA’s map collection since he arrived to UA in 1984 (he grew up in Carol City, the same neighborhood in which I grew up years before my family arrived. He used to play on the land holding my high school, which once had missiles pointing toward Cuba, he told me).

He said he has 73,000-plus maps! He’s traveled far to scan and borrow them, too. Below is a picture of two-volume edited collection he created.


I also enjoyed meeting Fries yesterday as he made the maps for my next book on spatial and racial politics in Florida with UM football front and center. Some of the maps he made will be used in that monograph, which is in-progress!IMG_2298

Next week, we’re off to the Old Tavern Museum, the old state capitol ruins and Jemison-Van deGraaff mansion. I’ve asked the students to be careful. This may feel like a “field trip” course, but they should be making connections between course readings, lectures and information received from the many people we meet. Yesterday, they received a hand-out which contained historical maps and city directories. They will plot the movements of Rice Ballard, a domestic slave-trader-planter whose life I have closely studied for my first historical monograph. I recast the contents of an actual antebellum letter concerning his visit to Cincinnati. They must complete a fill in the blank exercise with a classmate and plot the names of the streets on which he traveled. Completing the exercise is just one piece to several learning goals, among them, better acquainting ourselves with primary sources, or the documents on which historians rely to find meaning in the past.

How might we consider Ballard with powerful men in Alabama to whom they have been introduced? What do we make of Ballard’s visit to a port city in Ohio? How did he get there? Why was he there? With whom did he share this information and why? They may not know the answers, but they should be curious about what his travels say about modernity and power relations in the years leading to the Civil War.

Beyond that, I just confirmed our Oct. 3 visit to the Moundville Archaeological Park where we will further push our thinking on how power is always in flux between some of the most unlikely historical actors, in this case, Native Americans.

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