Wednesday, October 28, 2015

visits to three sites push our thinking on two very different historical actors

Today the class visited the Old Tavern in downtown Tuscaloosa as well as two nearby mansions, one named for former Alabama senator Robert Jemison and the other for antebellum physician John Drish. Katherine Richter, Executive Director of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society, made arrangements for all three visits. Greg Austin, staffer at Jemison, gave a wonderful tour. Along the way, we were joined by University of Alabama Press' Sales and Marketing Director J.D. Wilson and his colleague. The goal: revisiting the lives of Clarence King, the first President of the United States Geological Survey, and Eliza Potter, a hairdresser of mixed race as revealed in historian Martha Sandweiss' biography on King and Potter's 1859 memoir. Both King and Potter were not unfamiliar with the high life. King's birthplace, Newport, RI, was a place Potter visited often when called on to style the hair of wealthy women. Like King, who mapped the west for the U.S. government, opening the way for industry, Potter also traveled to Europe. Both people could be pretty cranky about society. Knowing what we know about these two very different people who were widely traveled, how would they have encountered the buildings we visited? Would either be drawn to one, none or all and for what reasons? The students have hand-outs they will complete. We will discuss more when we meet after the Fall Break. I enjoyed hearing their initial thoughts about Potter (some liked her while some liked King, the subject of last week's reading, more). I look forward to next week's discussion. Happy Break! P.S. Thank you, J.D., for the University of Alabama Press' best-selling book on Alabama haunted houses. I look forward to reading it while thinking about a recently published book by historian Tiya Miles. Given the Halloween holiday, the visits to Drish and Jemison, which may both be haunted, seemed especially fitting.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

urban and natural space via a scavenger hunt

This past Wednesday, the students visited Smith Hall, home of the Alabama's Museum of Natural History. There, they went on a scavenger hunt, which challenged them to make linkages between emerging urban life and natural life. It's hard to build industry if you don't know what's out there. Eugene Allen Smith, a former UA professor, naturalist and geologist, spent a lot of time surveying the state of Alabama around the turn of the century. With his help, the state was able to build industry on coal and iron among other things. His life poses interesting tensions with Clarence King, first president of the United States Geological Survey from 1879-1891. King took his own survey crew west to help government's efforts to better understand the continent's landscape and resources. Afterwards, the students and I gathered under a covered seated area where they completed the words to a fictitious vaudeville play. Indeed, they are continuing to learn how emerging urban life permitted Americans to better balance work with leisure life. Last week, they were made aware of how historian Gunther Barth's conception of a growing "common humanity" in urban culture reveals how some people were ridiculed at the expense of others. When they made their own scripts, it was funny to hear them focusing on a "common humanity" to which most in Tuscaloosa can relate: one revolving around Alabama's football team. I look forward to sharing excerpts from their scripts in an upcoming posting. For now, Roll Tide as we prepare to play Tennessee today! Congrats to Morgan Johnson and Christopher Edmundson for being the first to answer the scavenger hunt questions, which mostly revolved around Smith's life via a museum exhibit.