Inadequately detailed in the historical record, the lack of available information on the mental institution that once existed outside Tuscaloosa is peculiar. Named after it's original owner, a prominent Alabama businessman and politician in the mid-1800s, the Jemison Plantation was a later location for an ancillary of Bryce Hospital. Replacing the original plantation home after it burned down, a Neoclassical style mansion was built in the 1920s for the institution.1 This building in turn was scorched by it's own fire sometime in the early 2000s.
Aside from housing a state run sanatorium,1 not much else is well documented and many unverifiable legends persist in local oral history. A common facet of the colloquial history surrounding this site (commonly known among locals as “Old Bryce”) is that the Jemison Center was a working farm colony for African American patients of the segregated Bryce Mental Institution.2 Conditions for patients at Bryce Mental Hospital deteriorated into a horrifying state finally culminating in Federal intervention following the case of Wyatt v. Stickney.3,4 Not only did this far reaching court case result in humane conditions through minimum standards of care for institutionalized mental illness patients nationally, it also resulted in deinstitutionalization: “the the massive depopulation of large state-operated psychiatric institutions.”4 This deinstitutionalization is of course a contributing factor to the abandoned Kirkbrides and other asylums across the country.
The Jemison building is inexplicably omitted from nearly all accessible written records regarding Bryce Hospital, and coincidentally: “A review of state records on mental health in Alabama was most notable for a lack of reference to African Americans.”5 Alabama of course resisted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and desegregation as long as it could,5 but eventually Bryce was desegregated and the Jemison Center was closed possibly around 1977.2
Today the Jemison Center is a charred ruin, that is slowly being reclaimed by nature and visibly collapsing. The roof of the building has been consumed by fire with heavy damage on the upper levels. Most of the interior has no recognizable signs of its prior purpose and has been heavily vandalized. Another, more recently constructed, medical complex exists on the Jemison Plantation which will be explored in a later article. More photos can be seen in the Flickr Album.
- Historic American Buildings Survey. Robert Jemison Plantation. Compiled After 1991. PDF. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/al1023.
- Kazek K. Abandoned Alabama Part 3. AL.com. April 15, 2015.
- Belcher DJ. Wyatt v. Stickney. Encyclopedia of Alabama. August 6 2009.
- Hobbs TR, Courington J. Bryce Hospital: Documentation of Architectural and Cultural Significance. Alabama Department of Mental Health. Bryce Hospital Historic Preservation Project. PDF. September 2008:4
- Jackson V. Separate and Unequal: The Legacy of Racially Segregated Psychiatric Hospitals. 2005:19-21