I had a blast on yesterday visiting four historic sites – the Old Tavern, Capitol ruins, Jemison Van de Graaff Mansion and the old L & N railroad station (present-day 301 Bistro, Bar and Beer Garden) – in Tuscaloosa with my Antebellum America class. It was hot, but we got through it.
One highlight was watching the skit all students are assigned to do in this course. As true in previous classes, “Roll Tide!” ends up somewhere in the anachronistic lines the students themselves create in the context of learning more about how the antebellum period figures into emerging urban life in the United States. Visits to the tavern, the ruins of the state capitol, which burned in the early 20th century, the weekend mansion for Alabama Senator Robert Jemison Jr. and the L & N station figure into this development. In a maturing nineteenth century through the early decades of the twentieth century, people and products moved through space in never before seen ways. Historian Gunther Barth argues a “common humanity” emerged during this period, something the students explored via a skit.
Some of the individuals who moved through space arrived in Tuscaloosa amid the growing Cotton Kingdom in the south and sectional debates about the future of slavery.
Highlights on the tours: watching two students from very different backgrounds cast as Horace King, the African American-Native American enslaved man and later, freedman whose design skills helped usher the South into modernity.
Also, I did not know the L & N Station’s regrettable Jim Crow set-up permitted African Americans the same beautiful domed ceiling and other exquisite decor including marble in the bathrooms. Someone in Louisville who owned the company decided to bypass local custom a bit. This is worth learning more about. I am grateful for the tours. Thank you, UA alum Brandon Boatwright of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society and Dr. Bebe Lightfoot of UA’s Honor College and co-owner of 301 Bistro for your assistance!
Last week, the students visited UA’s Gorgas House Museum where Brandon Thompson, its director, led a tour. Built in 1829, two years after the old tavern, this dwelling served as a student dining room, infirmary and post office as well as lodgings for faculty and later, the Gorgas family. Amelia Gorgas descends from Sarah Haynsworth Gayle, wife of Alabama governor John Gayle. As the research of UA Emeritus Professor of History Sarah Wiggins has demonstrated, Sarah upended many stereotypes about the southern belle. Via her journal – to which the students have been introduced in secondary readings – she commented on the patriarchal ways of southern society that found some of the school’s initial students mistreating their professors and in one case, kidnapping an enslaved young woman. She also watched patiently to see whether the state legislators would ever address women’s rights as her husband had sold the enslaved people she inherited to pay off his drunken brother’s debts. The women’s rights issue outlived her.
Next week, the students have their first exam. They will be challenged to share whether they are persuaded that an “American character” as defined by Alexis de Tocqueville, a French judge who visited the States in 1831 – existed in historical actors who lived during the antebellum period.
Meanwhile, I am excited to participate in my first National Council on Public History meeting in Atlanta next semester. Thanks to my colleague Dr. Julia Brock, public historian extraordinaire, for her encouragement. I will speak during a roundtable discussion titled “The Historian’s Gaze: Moving Images and Visual Texts in Public Interpretation of Social Justice Issues” with our colleague Dr. Teresa Cribelli and Dr. Jennifer Taylor and graduate student Megan Crutcher of Duquesne University’s Department of History.