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The Little Round House at the University of Alabama

The University of Alabama's campus holds a small building, a Civil War survivor, that served as a military training space. Enslaved individuals, used as drummers and laborers, played a significant role in the university's history. Their contributions, often overlooked, are essential to understanding the complex history of the institution. Created by Smarthistory.

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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    This is a wonderful recovery of names in Alabama. In recent years we have learned of the history of enslavement as it applied to Georgetown University and places like Rutgers (far from the South). Have the names of those who served (and were sold by) Georgetown, or the names of those who constructed buildings still used on the campus of Rutgers, been found and displayed?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

- We're standing in the center of the University of Alabama's enormous campus in front of a small building. One of the very few structures that survived the Northern troops attack during the Civil War. This was built just before the Civil War in anticipation of the war. - So this structure housed the Drum Corps, originally two individuals who were enslaved, they were rented out to the university and then one will switch out. So it'd be three in total, but at the top of the building, cadets, no longer students, would do century duty. The bottom part of the building, where the munitions were stored. So this is designed not as an academic space, but as a military space to train future officers for the war. - And the architecture is militaristic. You have large windows to observe, and you have crenelations at the roof line, which might remind us of medieval fortifications, where archers could hide and shoot. - It's not tall, but it's tall enough that you can alert the campus if you see large movement of troops. You can also hear better by being up away from the ground level. So you have the surveillance part at the top, but you also have another type of surveillance of the enslaved people in that building. - Many people may not know that enslaved people were often used as drummers and that's because they were not trusted with weapons. - They were not trusted because people thought that they would fire back at the people who enslaved them. So as a drummer, they're doing a service to the institution of the military without holding a gun. And they also are vulnerable to being killed. So they're part of military, but not really. - War did come. The United States troops did march on the campus and burned most of it. - On April 3rd, 1865 under surviving steps, there were two drummers there. They were Gabe and Crawford. And when news came out that the troops were coming, President Garland called upon these drummers to issue out the long slow drum roll. So on those steps, they are drum rolling. And the surrounding barracks because storms become barracks, the students are awakened and they are mobilizing. - For most people when they think about enslavement in the Southern United States in the antebellum years, the years before the Civil War, I think many people think about agricultural work. They think about domestic laborers, but they don't think about laborers on a campus. - So that's one of the things I like about this building. It reminds individuals not all enslaved people worked on plantations. They are doing the grounds on a college campus. They're in these classroom spaces. However, these enslaved people were trusted to be lab assistants for our faculty. They're in the classrooms with students. So this is not plantation slavery. This is not urban slavery. This gives a different type of opportunity for individuals, but it's still slavery. - And the university acknowledges that rented slaves occupied this building in a marker, but there isn't much detail. - It's deceiving because when you hear rented slaves, you think there's a lot of rented slaves. There's only three. Their names were Neal, Crawford and Gabe. Why couldn't three names be added to a marker that acknowledged that enslaved people were in this building. So it's about the politics of remembrance, whose names matter, and slaves becomes this catch-all, this way to absolve the institution from the practice that was foundational to it from its beginning to the Civil War and ultimately its destruction. - When I read the marker, because of the language that was used, there was a kind of distance for me. These were not people. These were slaves. These were generalized. And when I read your work and you gave them names again, they became individuals. I began to wonder what they looked like, who they were, what they felt. There was a remarkable transformation that takes place when they are given back their identity. When they are given back their name. - We talk about the founders of the school. We talk about these great faculty members. These are the other founders of this institution. And by not naming them, we are pretending that they were not instrumental to the construction and the growth of this institution. By giving that name, we put them on the same plane with the people we want celebrated. Those who were the enslavers, and all I'm doing is bringing them back to people to remind them, without the labor of these drummers, I could not be here. And while they disappear in the archives, after April 4th, 1865, I could still trace their name as a modern day legacy to remind the campus of their contributions in its full sense. - And then you take this particular case and you multiply it by the multitude of enslaved people in the South. But even in earlier years in the North who built cities like New York, names that have been largely forgotten. - Their names, their contributions, their labor, I think is a missed opportunity for us to move forward in this moment. The democratic ideals of the nation excluded them, but yet it's those people who fought for freedom, fought for democracy, fought for the humanity and recognition, is where the nation became better. And so how do we bring them side by side? History is nuanced. It's complex. It's not hagiography where we only talk about the great things, that was the history of the previous generation. Now we can't talk about the nation and institutions. We're recognizing all the people here, the men, the women, the children who helped to build this nation and those descendants who continue to build this nation. And to do this with humility and love rather than fear and anger.