Like many anthropologists, Mark Auslander began his career working in a distant, exotic place. In his case, it was Zambia. But it was the experience of teaching at Emory’s original campus, in Oxford, Georgia, that “really shook things up for me,” he says.
He and his students took two tours of the town’s historic cemetery, where some of the early leaders of Emory are buried. One visit was guided by a conservative white member of the community, another by a local African-American.
“They gave us totally different tours,” Auslander says. “One guide emphasized the glories of Emory, by which he meant the white Emory. The other emphasized the long history of racial discrimination, that was visible in the cemetery.”
In a segregated area lay the grave of Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd, an enslaved woman who was owned by Methodist Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of Emory’s board of trustees. Bishop Andrew’s ownership of Miss Kitty and other enslaved persons triggered the 1844 national schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church, presaging the Civil War.
“Everybody in Oxford had an opinion about Miss Kitty,” Auslander says. Bishop Andrew used to claim he was only an accidental slave owner, since all of his slaves had been inherited or acquired through his three marriages. Some conservative whites sympathized with Andrew’s view, and contended that Andrew offered Miss Kitty her freedom but she refused to accept it. But the term “accidental” rankled some members of the African-American community, who believed that Miss Kitty was the bishop’s mistress, and that she had no control over that fate.
“My students and I began to realize that we were in the middle of a very complex and exciting window to an important chapter in American history," Auslander says.
What was the truth behind conflicting versions of the story of Miss Kitty, that had been passed through families in Oxford for 160 years? Where did she come from, and what happened to her descendants?
The search for answers led to Auslander’s forthcoming book, “The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of the American South.” He will give a public talk on the book at Emory's Oxford College on Wednesday, Feb. 2.
Auslander, who is now with Brandeis University, helped organized Emory’s upcoming conference, “Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies,” which begins on Thursday, Feb. 3. The first conference of its kind, it will examine the impact of the enslavement of people of African descent on institutions of higher education.
Visit Emory Report, to hear the podcast of an interview of Auslander by Dana Goldman.
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