Robert Jemison, Jr. was one of the most prominent, wealthy and powerful citizens in Alabama and in Tuscaloosa’s early days of development. More than just a plantation and land owner, Jemison was a lawyer, politician, industrialist, civic leader and exceptional individual in many aspects of life.
Robert Jemison was born in Lincoln County, Georgia, September 17, 1802 and first came to Tuscaloosa in 1821-22 at approximately the age of twenty. Except for some time spent in Pickens County, Jemison made Tuscaloosa his permanent home after 1836. Early in his career, he began to buy land, eventually owning over 10,000 acres. His principal plantation, ‘Cherokee,’ had an exceptional production of corn, oats, cotton and livestock. Building on this agricultural success, he soon expanded his interests to transportation, business, industry and more land, owning at one time six plantations.
Jemison developed and operated a stagecoach line which he merged with other similar interests to expand the system into north and central Alabama. He built a road, on which he placed tolls, to service his coal mines in the Brookwood area and then entered the iron industry to develop Cheaha Creek Foundry in Talladega County. The development and construction of the Alabama-Chattanooga Railroad is largely due to his efforts.
Building on his early economic successes, Jemison decided to enter public service and eventually politics. He had long been an active Whig politically. Between 1840 and 1850, he served seven years in the Alabama House of Representatives. Among his achievements as a legislator was putting the state’s finances in order after the failure of the State Bank. As Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Jemison successfully provided a careful analysis of the bank and the state’s finances resulting in a revenue system and financial plan that stayed in place for many years.
Jemison served in the state Senate from 1851 until 1863. Early on he had foreseen that if the proposed Alabama Insane Hospital (now Bryce Hospital) came to Tuscaloosa, it would lift the community economically, especially since the State Capital had been moved to Montgomery. As a State Senator, Jemison steered the decision to name Tuscaloosa as the new home of the hospital. Thus, one of the largest, most modern mental health hospitals in the United States at that time was built, providing hundreds of construction jobs and work for over a decade as well as the permanent employment that followed. In 1863 Jemison was President of the state Senate; he soon afterward entered the Confederate Senate (pdf).
Jemison’s influence and leadership were felt in many other ways. He worked closely with two free blacks, Horace King and Solomon Perteet, who had learned construction and were involved in several building projects, including construction of the bridge over the Black Warrior River. A key reason that King and Perteet were both successful, even in the face of social and political bonds that held the rest of their race, was Robert Jemison. Even though Jemison did own slaves, he led the opposition to Alabama’s secession in 1861.
One of his legacies is the Jemison Mansion, an Italianate design for twenty-six rooms and two conservatories, built with lumber from Jemison’s own sawmills and designed by John Stewart, an architect from Philadelphia’s architectural firm Sloan and Stewart. Construction on the mansion, begun in 1859, was primarily completed in 1862, while final additions continued into the early years of the American Civil War. Although some items were never completed as planned due to the war and the resulting Union blockade of the South, the house made use of the latest home innovations. This included an elaborate plumbing system which featured running water, flush toilets, a hot water boiler, and a copper bathtub; this was some of the earliest modern plumbing in the state. The property also had its own coal gas plant, which provided the mansion with gas lighting and fueled a kitchen stove.
Only weeks before the end of the Civil War, Union troops arrived in Tuscaloosa and burned many buildings of the University of Alabama campus, heading toward downtown, intending to burn the Jemison Mansion and other homes as well. On the way, some children came running down the street yelling “Forrest is coming! Forrest is coming!”. Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was known by the soldiers to be in area and in order to avoid a battle for which they were not prepared, the Union troops crossed the Black Warrior River into Northport. They burned the bridge behind them and were unable to return later. The children had been playing a prank on them, but unknowingly saved the Jemison Mansion and several other Tuscaloosa landmarks from destruction.
Robert Jemison’s best-known descendant, Robert Jemison Van de Graaff (inventor-scientist of the Van De Graaff generator), was born at home in 1901 but the Jemison family eventually lost possession of the house during the Great Depression (circa 1929 and 1930’s). The house was sold to J.P. and Nell Burchfield in 1945; they would later complete the first major restoration. Following their ownership, it was converted for use as Tuscaloosa’s Friedman Public Library from 1955 until 1979. Once the library had relocated it came to be occupied by two national publications: first Horizon and then Antique Monthly. Finally, it was acquired by the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion Foundation in 1991; restoration of the home began in 1993. Today, it sits on Greensboro Avenue as a wonderful reminder of the early history of Tuscaloosa – The Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion – the home of the Tuscaloosa Convention and Visitors Bureau which is open to the public for tours and social functions.
In one history book on Alabama, the author says that “among the citizens of Tuskaloosa (sic), Robert Jemison stood like Saul among the children of Kish—a head and shoulders above his brethren.” This assertion was based on Jemison’s personal abilities and solid accomplishments in business and politics. Robert Jemison died at his home in Tuscaloosa on October 17, 1871. A mass memorial service was held at the county courthouse with citizens from throughout the state in attendance. His legacy is one of economic, cultural and political leadership in the early days of Tuscaloosa. His relatives continued to make an impact on the community’s development. A nephew, William Carlos Jemison, picked up where his uncle left off and continued leadership in business and economic development. He established the Allen & Jemison Hardware business, at one time the largest hardware store in Alabama, as well as serving as the Mayor of Tuscaloosa in the 1880s.
On April 26, 2005, Robert Jemison was posthumously inducted into the 2005 Tuscaloosa County Civic Hall of Fame. His legacy of accomplishment, innovation and leadership is an excellent namesake for the City of Jemison, Alabama. Our City honors the memory of this significant Alabamian.