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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Auslander writes on legacy of slavery in Georgia

Published: November 18, 2011
Section: Features

Mark Auslander, a former professor at Brandeis who now teaches anthropology at Central Washington University, published his first book this fall called “The Accidental Slaveowner.” Auslander’s book delves into the myths surrounding “Miss Kitty,” or Katherine Andrew Boyd, a slave in Oxford, Ga., who is said to have been one cause of the Civil War.

Before working at Central Washington University, Auslander was an assistant professor of anthropology at Brandeis, directed the interdisciplinary graduate program in Cultural Production and served as Brandeis’ academic director of Community Engaged Learning. He is still affiliated with the university and assists with the graduate program in Anthropology.

Auslander’s research into Miss Kitty’s life was originally intended to be an article but, after connecting with the residents of Oxford, Ga., and seeking the help of Miss Kitty’s living descendants to uncover her “real” story, Auslander’s article turned into a book.

“I began to realize there were many levels of the story that had to be told,” Auslander said. “I was interested in locating the family members of Miss Kitty, and what happened to their prosperity. The Oxford community had been praying on that question for many generations.”

The story of Miss Kitty has been twofold for generations. In standard white mythology, Kitty is seen as one of several loyal slaves of Methodist Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of Emory University’s board of trustees.

Miss Kitty is said to have willingly remained in slavery in 1841. Bishop Andrew is therefore regarded as an “accidental” slave owner because he neither bought nor sold Kitty and Kitty “has since been celebrated as a loyal slave,” Auslander said.

According to black residents of Oxford, however, Kitty remained enslaved as Bishop Andrew’s coerced lover and was unable to live freely.

“For the white community, the story of Miss Kitty seemed to exemplify the story of the supposedly loyal maid,” Auslander said. “This is an important part of white southern mythology and is a long-running American story.”

According to Auslander, when it was discovered that Bishop Andrew was still a slave owner in 1844, there was a great national schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church. This split subsequently led to divisions in other American churches, as well as the unraveling of religion in the 19th century.

“What tied the United States together was common membership to churches in the north and south,” Auslander said.

Auslander said he was pulled into the study of slavery by a teaching position he held in Oxford, Ga. When he first began teaching in Oxford he taught about present-day injustices.

“In 1999 Oxford had an all-white police force and a segregated cemetery,” Auslander said. “I couldn’t begin to work on current injustices if I didn’t go back to their origins.”

Auslander also said he believes the United States is founded upon systems of slavery, and that the overall health of present day society depends on reexamining that history. Remarking how slavery seems so far away at Brandeis, Auslander stressed that the past still matters.

Through his research, Auslander worked with the black community in Oxford to trace Miss Kitty’s descendants, and eventually contacted sisters Darcel Caldwell and Cynthia Caldwell Martin, the great-great-great-granddaughters of Miss Kitty.

Caldwell and Martin have since traveled to Oxford twice. Upon their second visit this past October, the Oxford community erected a new headstone for Miss Kitty in the Oxford community cemetery. The headstone now reads “Miss Kitty, Katherine Andrew Boyd, wife, mother and member of the Oxford Emory community.”

Upon their first contact with Auslander, Caldwell and Martin were only aware of their family lineage as far back as their great-great-grandfather, Miss Kitty’s son, Alford Boyd.

“I felt the new headstone was a good combination of the legend and the reality,” Caldwell said. “The headstone is an excellent acknowledgement of Kitty’s role in the community. The black and white, and the Emory and Oxford community. My hope is to be able to maintain a relationship with the community in Oxford now that I know that I have some sort of roots there.”

For Caldwell and Martin, discovering Miss Kitty meant discovering a part of their past they had never known before. Their journey has been emotional and unusual because, while most Americans try to find their own family history, Caldwell and Martin’s family history found them.

“Professor Auslander’s research has given me an opportunity to form an attachment with the Oxford Emory community,” Martin said. “I was aware of Alford Boyd because he raised my grandmother, so she frequently spoke of her grandfather and grandmother, aunts and uncles. So, including my children, I was already familiar with six generations of my ancestors. Finding Katherine was a bonus. It wasn’t something I ever expected.”

Caldwell was stunned to learn about Kitty. “Sometimes it’s difficult,” Caldwell said. “It turns out there’s an ancestor I didn’t even know existed, and she was known as the person that caused the Civil War. She may also have been the coerced mistress of Bishop Andrew, and her oldest son Alford may have been the child of the bishop.”

Martin, too, described how shocked she was to learn of Miss Kitty’s role and the impact it had on the Methodist Church, the south and on the United States. “It is mind boggling,” Martin said. “I am very protective of Kitty and her memory, and I am honored to know of her.”

Next month Emory University will celebrate its 175th anniversary. As part of the celebration, Emory will recognize 175 of its “history makers,” and Miss Kitty will be honored as one of them. “The fact that the Oxford and Emory community knew of Kitty shows that she was very much a part of their lure and legend,” Caldwell said.

“I would like to hope that any attention that my great-great-great-grandmother gets helps people recognize that there was a whole community of slaves in Newton County, Ga., who were involved in the establishment of Emory University,” she said. “Kitty was one of many. Personally my sister and I can symbolize not just Kitty, but the rest of those nameless people who are not being identified.”

Auslander said he will continue to work with the Oxford community. Since the publication of “The Accidental Slaveowner,” Auslander and residents of Oxford have begun an effort to create a scholarship that will allow the descendants of slaves to go to college.

He is also working to build a monument in honor of the slaves who built universities nationwide. Auslander is currently working on a number of books, one of which will discuss race, labor and science.

“Mark and his wife Ellen deserve a lot of credit for following through with this project,” Martin said. “This is a fascinating story, and it goes beyond that. It’s my family history. What’s even more interesting is that this woman was born around 1822, she had three children, and my sister and my two children are her only living descendants.”

Auslander and his wife Ellen Schattschneider, associate professor of anthropology and women’s and gender studies at Brandeis, were active leaders of the faculty movement to save The Rose Art Museum in 2009.

Last week, Auslander delivered a presentation to the Brandeis community at the 11th annual Saler Lecture in Religious Studies, called “In Slavery’s Shadows: Paradoxes of Religion, Race and Art.”