Robert Jemison Jr. (1802-1871) was an Alabama business magnate and politician who served in the Alabama Senate and House of Representatives as well as in the Senate of the Confederate States of America. A prominent figure in Tuscaloosa, he owned or invested in various businesses ranging from plantations with as many as 500 slaves to a bridge-building company, toll roads, a foundry, a coal mine, a stagecoach line, mills, a stable, and a hotel. His bridge company constructed some of the first covered bridges in Tuscaloosa County and employed famed bridge designer Horace King; Jemison was instrumental in pushing legislation through the Alabama legislature to give the enslaved King his freedom.
Robert Jemison Jr. Jemison was born on September 17, 1802, in Lincoln County, Georgia, to William, a physician, and Sarah Mims Jemison; he was one of seven children. (His mother was related to Samuel Mims, whose plantation was the site of the Fort Mims massacre of settlers by Creek Indians in August 1813.) To distinguish himself from a paternal uncle, he added “junior” to his name. Jemison was educated at the private coeducational Mount Zion Academy in Hancock County, Georgia, where he was a classmate of future Alabama congressman Dixon Hall Lewis. He attended the University of Georgia but left without graduating to study law under future Alabama legislator Eli Sims Shorter in Eatonton, Georgia.
In 1821, William Jemison relocated the family to Greensboro, Hale County, where he amassed a large fortune through land speculation. Jemison continued his legal studies, but when his father died in 1826, he inherited the large Garden Plantation near Tuscaloosa and lived there for the next ten years. His lumber mill supplied the materials for bridge construction in the city, and his stagecoach business, acquired as payment for a debt, became one of the largest mail suppliers in the South. In 1836, upon the death of his brother Mims in the Second Seminole War, he inherited “the Orchard,” a 4,000-acre plantation nearby on the Black Warrior River that he later named “Cherokee Place.” The Alabama State Hospital for the Insane (present-day Bryce Hospital) would later be built on the property as the first inpatient psychiatric facility in the state. Jemison used his position on the State Board of Finance to promote funding for the mentally ill and sought advice from mental healthcare crusader Dorothea Dix. Jemison would soon expand his holdings to six plantations encompassing 11,000 acres and also earned large sums from timber rights, toll roads, and land speculation like his father.
In 1836, he was elected to the Alabama legislature as a member of the Whig Party. He promoted legislation that benefited his planter class and strove to bolster Alabama’s banking industry after the economic downturn following the Panic of 1837. He expanded his business interests to include milling facilities and, in 1842, the Columbus Bridge Company of Columbus, Georgia. This venture introduced him to Horace King, an enslaved architect and bridge engineer owned by bridge designer John Godwin. After working with King on other bridges, Jemison shepherded a bill giving King his freedom through the Alabama legislature. In 1859, he began construction on a large Italianate mansion in Tuscaloosa to serve as his “town” home. By the time work largely ceased two years later (owing to the Union blockade during the Civil War), the mansion was still the first home in the city to have indoor plumbing and coal-fired gas lighting. Today it is known as the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion.
Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion In 1861, the state of Alabama called a convention to consider seceding from the Union. Jemison was a vocal opponent and voted against the secession resolution, but ultimately Alabama seceded. Jemison then served as a senator in the state’s Confederate government. In 1863, Jemison was unanimously elected as the President of the Alabama Senate before being elected to the Confederate States Senate in Richmond, Virginia, replacing the recently deceased William Lowndes Yancey, who was renowned for supporting secession. Jemison served in this position until the end of the war in 1865. His mansion was unharmed when Union soldiers burned much of the nearby University of Alabama campus that April in the closing days of the war. Jemison was reportedly targeted for arrest but evaded capture and saved some family silver.
The collapse of the Confederacy and its economy also led to the collapse of Jemison’s vast personal fortune. His remaining years were spent rebuilding his wealth and devoting considerable time and attention to rebuilding the university. On October 16, 1871, Jemison died at his home in Tuscaloosa and the property remained in the hands of his descendants until the twentieth century.
Sources are in disagreement regarding Jemison’s marriages and children. He may have been married twice and possibly three times and likely had at least two children and possibly more. One of Robert Jemison Jr.’s best-known descendants was famed physicist Robert Jemison Van de Graaff, who designed and developed the electrostatic Van de Graaff Generator that produced enormously high voltages. He was a great-grandson of Jemison and his wife Priscilla Cherokee. Robert Jemison Jr. (1878-1974), who was a noted developer and businessman in Birmingham, Jefferson County, was a grandnephew of Robert Jemison Jr. The University of Alabama’s William Stanley Hoole Special Collections Library holds a collection of papers from Robert Jemison Jr.
- Elebash, Camille Maxwell. “Jemison Mansion Family Histories.” Alabama Heritage 26 (Fall 1992): 35-43.
- Mellown, Robert O. “The Jemison Mansion and Longwood.” Alabama Heritage 26 (Fall 1992): 24-34.