Thursday, February 10, 2011

Legacies of slavery move into the light

One hundred and fifty years after the U.S. Civil War started, the impact of slavery in institutions of higher education remains largely unexamined. As part of the movement to change that, hundreds of scholars came together for Emory’s “Slavery and the University” conference Feb. 3 to 6.

“We learned a lot about the political and economic connections. So many major universities, both north and south, were funded by the Atlantic slave trade,” says anthropologist Mark Auslander of Brandeis University. “And we learned about how violent the slavery system had been, even at colleges.”

Auslander, who formerly taught at Emory’s Oxford College campus, is working on a book about Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd, a well-known, yet mysterious, historical figure in the Oxford community. Miss Kitty was an enslaved woman owned by Methodist Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of Emory’s board of trustees. Andrew’s ownership of Miss Kitty helped triggered the 1844 schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which is considered one of the templates in the forming of the confederacy.

While trying to sort fact from myth in her complicated life story, Auslander tracked down Miss Kitty’s descendants.

“I’m still grasping with the reality of it all,” says Darcel Caldwell, who learned that she was Miss Kitty’s great-great-great granddaughter when she got a phone call from Auslander.

“I had no idea that I had ancestors that had such an impact on this country,” she said. “It helps me figure out where I fit in, and I think that’s one great advantage that a lot of black Americans don’t have.”

Caldwell was among those who gathered at Emory’s Old Church in Oxford, built in 1841, for the concluding ceremony of the conference, and to honor Miss Kitty’s legacy.

“By focusing on institutions of higher education as one critical place where enslaved labor played an important role, and where arguments for and against African slavery were developed, discussed and debated, we begin to understand how central slavery was to society as a whole,” says Emory history professor Leslie Harris. “By knowing these histories we can better address the issues with us today.”

Slavery, power and the myth of Miss Kitty

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