This image above of my students standing in front of the Jemison Van de Graaff mansion speaks volumes about the progress we’ve made in this country despite the difficult headlines before us today.
The students enrolled in my “Antebellum America” course visited Tuscaloosa’s Old Tavern Museum, the Jemison mansion and the Old Capitol Building ruins yesterday. While visiting these sites, we had the aim of considering the complexities of emerging urban life with Tuscaloosa in mind.
The city and Alabama were founded in 1819. Even though Tuscaloosa feels like a small college town even today, by the time the state capital moved from here to Montgomery in 1846, we had more than 2,500 people, which made it a city by the definition of federal standards.
The students were invited to think about the “common humanity” on display in what historian Gunther Barth called a “modern city culture” that was seen in an urbanizing America between the 1820s and 1920s. Antebellum Tuscaloosa resident and slaveholder Sen. Robert Jemison Jr. played a role in such a culture. Specifically, he helped modernize the South via his interest in bridge-building with the likes of none other than Horace King, an enslaved man whose master, an architect, taught him the skills needed to design bridges.
After King was faced with restrictions on free people that required him to leave the South on the heels of purchasing his freedom amid escalating sectional conflict, it was Jemison who used his clout to permit King to stay.
While there were thousands of other enslaved people who did not encounter this difficult period in American history like King, those individuals, King and Jemison, serve as testimony of the way in which we must unflatten the better circulating stories about our shared past. This class did as much yesterday when the students performed skits that receive inspiration from the vaudeville acts that, as Barth tells us, put on display the emergence of a common humanity when people in an industrializing America made fun of others, among them people of African descent, as a means of uplifting themselves.
This class instead found ways to recast a skit with real and imagined historical actors in mind with the goal of showing our own common humanity. Such humanity emerged in the words “Roll Tide!” which unsurprisingly showed up in all three skits.
Next week, we turn to the theme of womanhood. Of course, the iconic southern belle will be in view, but so will other individuals who figure into the antebellum landscape. While reading Victoria Ott’s Scarlett Sisters and my recent article on female academies in Alabama Heritage magazine, we will be challenged to see familiar narratives alongside complex case studies that invite us to deepen what we already know about our shared past.