A Project for Students and Citizens

Living Democracy in Selma/Old Cahawba: Week Four

In Selma / Old Cahawba on June 19, 2013 at 1:14 pm

taryn pic 1Bergstresser Finds Perfect Place for Journey of Discovery

By Taryn Wilson

Sometimes when you are looking for something, you end up finding something even better that you could never have expected. In my time in Selma, Jack Bergstresser has been that something better.

An Air Force brat born in Montgomery, Jack moved all around the world as a child before coming back to Alabama for college. He studied at the University of Montevallo and the University of Alabama at Birmingham for his undergraduate and graduate degrees respectively, focusing on history and anthropology before obtaining his PhD from Auburn University with a focus on historical cultural development as a result of technology. After receiving his doctorate he returned to UAB where he worked as a research assistant professor while he did small archaeological projects.

He continued on, spending time working at Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park and working for the Alabama Historical Commission before he landed at Old Cahawba Archaeological Park (http://www.cahawba.com). At Old Cahawba, Jack, whose position is listed as an Archaeological Interpreter, spends his mornings conducting group tours or archaeological projects and mans the Visitor Center for the second half of the day. During all of his work experiences Jack has continued to take the time to study and do research, with his main focus over the past 15 years being on the migrations of African Americans within the state of Alabama during the 19th Century.

Searching for knowledge on the subject has been a leading reason why Jack has worked in the places that he has during his life. “The jobs were platforms,” he said as he explained how he used his employment opportunities to get deep into the history of the African-American movements and migrations before, during and after the Civil War. During his time at Tannehill and Red Mountain Park he was able to investigate the influx of African-American families during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era when the Birmingham area became known for its industrial prowess. Digging farther back into the story led him further south to Old Cahawba, the site of the first state capital and later a successful freedmen’s town. “I don’t want to complete the story. I just want to add another chapter, and Old Cahawba allows me to do that,” Bergstresser said.

Slave Quarters:Old Cahawba

Slave quarters structure is one of few still standing at Old Cahawba. (Photo by Nathan Simone)

The site of Alabama’s first state capital from 1820 to 1825, Old Cahawba was once a booming southern antebellum town. At the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers and on the Cahaba, Marion and Greensboro railroad, the town was at the center of the cotton boom of the late 1850’s. At its prime, the town made Dallas County one of the top five richest counties in the entire United States. But, like many communities in the South, the Civil War crushed the promise of the area.  With the departure of the county seat to Selma, Cahawba was all but finished.

The few who remained in the area after the war were mostly the freed slaves, or freedmen, from nearby plantations. Many of them were skilled artisans and craftsmen who learned their trades while Cahawba was still in its heyday. They lived in Cahawba, whose population had shrunk to barely 500, up until the turn of the century, when even they decided to leave the area. However, in the short time they were there, the community produced landowning, civic-minded citizens who fought for the political freedom granted to them by emancipation. Later some of these individuals even went on to serve in state level political offices.

Unfortunately, with the outflow of the capital, the county seat, and the cotton industry, the town could not manage to provide most families with the opportunity they needed to stay, and most left for nearby Selma or Mobile. The few who remained managed to build a small one-room schoolhouse next to the church to educate the local children. Though the town is now deserted, evidence of the African American community that once existed there can be found in the Negro Burial Ground and in some of the few remaining structures of the town. The stories passed down from generation to generation about these places also shed light on what life might have been like living in Old Cahawba.

When asked what his favorite place in Old Cahawba is, he doesn’t waste a minute before saying that the old one room schoolhouse is his chosen location. A small wooden building with the remains of an outhouse behind it, the building is not much to look at. But as a true archaeologist, Jack sees beyond the structure to the story that it tells. “The school house represents a monumental effort,” he explained. “You’ve got people in Dallas, Texas, thinking they’ve done something special by making a [five way interchange], but it’s really the people like these old sharecroppers who built this school house that really made a difference.” Used until the schools became desegregated in the 1950s, the schoolhouse is a strong indicator of what the community at Old Cahawba was capable of. They built a community for themselves and created opportunities for the citizens to be successful even in a time when African Americans had less opportunity.

“I just have an interest in finding out how humans got to how they are today,” Jack said.  “I want to look at the challenges and struggles and how they came together to deal and how they triumphed. And honestly there is no better group to look at than the African Americans during the 19th Century.”

nathan burial ground

Old Cahawba historic sites include “Negro Burial Ground”. (Photo by Nathan Simone)

Not limited to just studying these topics, Jack also takes the time to share his broad knowledge with those who he interacts with in the Old Cahawba Visitor Center and on tours. During a recent opportunity with Concordia College student volunteers, Jack made sure to take the time to share the facts and history with the students. “I just want people to understand the freedmen’s accomplishments. Yes, Old Cahawba was the first state capital and we have to tell that story,” he said, “but there was also a freedmen’s community and that is a story that needs telling as well.”

As a scholar and a teacher, Jack has been unbelievably helpful. He’s taught me about African American Diasporas, how to kill privet, what to do if you see a snake and even how to drive a Bush Hog. He has been a great source of information and has taught me too many things to recall in the short time I’ve been here.  And while he may not want to take credit for it, I think his story is worth telling just the same as the stories he loves to tell.


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