Robert Jemison, Jr. was a bridge builder, a mill owner, ran toll roads, a foundry, owner of surface coal mines, a stage line, six plantations and more than five hundred slaves. He trained many of his slaves with marketable skills learned on his plantations and in his mills and factories. Senator Jemison served the state of Alabama well in many capacities for many years. As a state senator at the Secession Conference in Montgomery in 1861, he argued forcefully against seceding from the Union. However, when the vote went against him, he responded to his duty, ultimately serving in the Confederate Senate. Jemison was a major advocate for the construction of a hospital for the humane treatment of the mentally ill. Largely through his efforts Tuscaloosa was selected as the site for Bryce Hospital. After the war, with his personal fortune lost, Jemison continued his efforts for the state, devoting considerable time and efforts to rebuilding The University of Alabama, most of which was destroyed during the Civil War.
The Jemison - Van de Graaff Mansion was one of the last and most elaborate houses to be built in Alabama before the Civil War. The Italianate house was probably designed by Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloane and construction was overseen by John Stewart who was in Tuscaloosa supervising the construction of Bryce Hospital. Jemison’s home incorporated the latest innovations including an elaborate plumbing system, and indoor lighting fueled by coal gas, a gas stove, and an early form of a refrigerator. In the 1940’s, J.P. and Nell Burchfield purchased the house and undertook a major restoration of the structure. From 1955 to 1979 the mansion served as the Friedman Public Library. In 1991, the City of Tuscaloosa acquired the Mansion and deeded it to the Jemison - Van de Graaff Mansion Foundation that insures the Mansion’s restoration and preservation. Using grants, donations, and financial support from the City of Tuscaloosa, this not-for-profit foundation is in the process of carefully researching and restoring this beautiful Mansion to its original appearance.