antebellum · archives · art · letters · teaching

taking it to the archive

Here is a James Van Der Zee image of a well dressed couple of African descent in Harlem. The students will be challenged to think about how their wealth, as displayed in those fine coats, pose tensions with the buffalo hide robe requested during the postbellum period by the biracial descendant of an Alabama southern white man/slaveholder.

I am so geeked today. My “Antebellum America” students and I will travel to the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library and to the Paul Jones Collection. Both are housed in our university’s Mary Harmon Bryant Hall. We have two goals. They will be invited to, first, think about how old letters and art are wonderful evidence to find meaning in our shared past and present.

Next, they will sort through “contradiction” in Americans during the antebellum and postbellum periods by interpreting three surviving letters from the biracial descendants of Samuel Townsend, a Huntsville, Alabama planter who left $200,000 (the equivalent of $6 million in today’s currency) to ten enslaved children, their mothers and next of kin. He had a paternal interest in nine of the children. This wealthy slaveholder puts on display the complexities in the dominant culture. His descendants do the same.

How will the students feel as they read letters from one of this man’s sons? After being freed in 1861, Osborne was relocated to Ohio where he and his siblings and cousins attended Wilberforce, then a newly opened boarding school largely populated by the biracial descendants of southern white men. He would serve in the Union army before relocating to Georgetown, Colorado, where he worked as a silver miner and barber, an elite profession for members of the African American community who struggled to enter into other professions – no matter how much money they had in the bank.

Here is a photo of my Gender, Race and Urban Space class with Emily Bibb, Curator of the Paul R. Jones Collection, at an exhibit the students curated in 2018. The image behind us is one my Antebellum America class will see today.

How will the students feel while reading a letter from Nettie Caldwell, Townsend’s granddaughter? Nettie was living with her grandmother in 1884. She wrote Septimus Cabaniss, her white grandfather’s lawyer, to inquire about her portion of his estate. She needed the money to purchase books for school.

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 9.05.47 AM.png

How will the students make connections between Osborne and Nettie’s letters and images in the Paul Jones Collection including one that shows a well-dressed African American couple in Harlem?

Another image features a school-aged African American girl who has exudes attitude – not unlike Caldwell?

I look forward to finding out today as we head to two archives. My thanks to Kate Matheny of Hoole Special Collections and Emily Bibb of the Paul Jones Collection for their assistance!

Update: It was a great visit. I am so lucky to work with these students. These are very difficult conversations. We’re hanging in there together. My best to Kate and Emily for their enthusiasm. We appreciate you both!

Emily Bibb, Curator, Paul R. Jones Collection, speaks to students enrolled in UA History Department’s “Antebellum America” class.
The students were introduced to James Van Der Zee’s work in the Paul R. Jones Collection. We had a rich discussion that enabled us to make connections between two images in this collection and letters from the Septimus Cabaniss Papers at UA’s W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library.
The students reflect with pencils in hand at UA’s W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library.
One of the three panels from Dr. Amalia Amaki’s triptych that pushed our thinking on the confident voice of Nettie Caldwell, granddaughter of a wealthy planter, in an 1884 letter in the Septimus Cabaniss Papers.


Meanwhile, I am also excited to teach “Gender, Race and the Urban Space” again next spring. The flier for that class is below. The books I am presently considering will compel us to continue thinking about how certain “bodies” become associated with the city, but also about the experiences of women in and outside of the United States and in and outside of rural spaces.

I am especially excited to include books by Edwidge Danticat, Imani Perry, Traci Parker, a former classmate, and the novel by filmmaker Julie Dash that receives inspiration from Dash’s moving 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. The movie is set in South Carolina. Charleston and St. Helena Island, SC, are, indeed, still on my mind.

Gender Race and Urban Space Flier.jpg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s