My husband always said “Limbs are made for climbing out on.” So, it was with pleasure I told students enrolled in my “Antebellum America Swagger,” a capstone research and writing class at the University of Alabama, these same words.
I was not sure if they would understand how the word “swagger,” which has been in use since the early nineteenth century even though the University of Miami football program gave new meaning to it in the eighties, has currency with people who lived long ago.
Among the people to whom they were attentive as they digested this idea was one pictured in the photograph above. His name is Horace King. He was a bridge designer who worked closely with Alabama Senator Robert Jemison Jr.
Imagine that! Letters were sent between a man of color and a soon-to-be Confederate politician and slaveholder whose Tuscaloosa mansion still stands (we will visit it soon). Jemison and other white southerners relied greatly on King’s design skills.
King relied greatly on Jemison’s power during escalating sectional conflict, which, in many cases, required free people of color to leave the South. Given his skill and his careful maneuvering, King received privileges denied to other people who looked like him.
Wrote one student about her attempts to decipher King’s penmanship in one letter written to Jemison with the Civil War raging in the background:
“I was trying to figure out a logical flow of words, while trying to remember that not all of the language used will seem familiar to me. Also, I felt Horace King’s swagger leap off the paper when I read ‘Give me all the information’ It was powerful.”
I was happy to see this student boldly sharing her impressions of tensions between the antebellum period and our present day. Here is what else she had to say:
“These documents reveal a ‘swag’ that I have never seen before. Horace King knew what he wanted and knew how to get it as well. Even though the letter was written long ago, it reveal a country similar to the one we have today. King’s letter shows confusion in Congress and in the government, which still exists today. Citizens do not know what is going on in Washington D.C. so I can understand where King is coming from.”
Essentially, this brilliant student and her brilliant classmate were doing what professional historians do. In order to find meaning in our shared and difficult past, they had to “take it to the archive.” Wrote one student about the work involved in deciphering the letters of historical actors,
“I now have a new appreciation for men and women who make it their job to transcribe and understand these documents as I cannot understand [the] majority of even the smallest [writing].”
For proof that this country has long been filled with people who put on display a certain level of confidence, drive, ambition or swag (even if they are absolutely terrified about their own future socially, economically or politically), the students had to look at historical documents, or letters that survive in UA’s Hoole Special Collections Library and decipher the handwriting and often formal way of speaking without any assistance from me.
While an edited volume existed for one particular archive, the students had to focus on a photocopied page of a diary in that archive.
I smiled and smiled as I graded transcriptions and their impressions of the antebellum period as a fractious and as one student said, “strange” era. Said another student,
“If someone did something that was terrible, it was written down because someone was watching whatever was happening and then writing it down.”
“I think [these letters] show a country [is having] meaningful discussions on [a] controversial topic…It’s a country that has a lot going on and is still getting its bearings.”