Reconciliation Begins at Home
Remembering African-American contributions
at Emory and Oxford


BY MARK AUSLANDER, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY, OXFORD COLLEGE


 

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During the fall semester 2000, students in my course Cultures of the African Diaspora (Anthropology 385r) developed a special exhibition titled A Dream Deferred: African Americans at Emory and Oxford Colleges, 1836-1968. The exhibition emerged in part as our response to Emory’s “Year of Reconciliation,” in which multiple programs throughout the university examined the concept of reconciliation in diverse philosophical traditions and explored reconciliation efforts in South Africa and elsewhere.

As we discussed this theme in class, many students emphasized that “reconciliation” needed to begin at home. We knew that Emory College had been founded at Oxford in 1836, during the time of slavery, and that the school had benefited from African-American labor throughout its history, during the many generations before the campus was officially desegregated in 1968. Yet who precisely were these persons, in slavery and freedom, who raised the college’s buildings, and who cared for the students, faculty, and college grounds for so many decades? In most cases, their names and stories had been forgotten, at least within the confines of the college. Would we be able, we wondered, to recover these names and to do justice to their stories?

The class pursued a double track. Some students worked with old documents—in the county courthouse, the university’s Special Collections, and the State Archives, as well as with private papers held by local families, black and white. Other students worked with older men and women living in Oxford, interviewing them about family stories related to slavery, employment, and the early years of the college. We were invited to services at several local African-American church congregations; church members shared their reminiscences with students and gave them tours of the neighborhood. A local white family, descendants of a nineteenth-century Emory professor who had been a slave-owner, generously shared old family documents that described in detail slaves in Oxford. In the county courthouse’s probate and deeds division, we found extensive legal records about slavery and its aftermath in Oxford, including receipts paid to slave-catchers who had captured runaway slaves during the Civil War.

Each week in class, students presented what they had learned from their interviews and research in the archives. They discussed in detail how each sign in the exhibit should be worded. For example, some students thought that the word “slave” was dehumanizing, that it deprived the person held in bondage of his or her essential personhood. The class therefore decided to refer in each sign to “enslaved persons.” We honored each of the nearly one hundred enslaved women and men we had identified with a special sign, trimmed in gold leaf. We learned that most of Emory’s early professors and officials had been slaveowners and that the 1836 decision to name the college for recently deceased Methodist Bishop John T. Emory (a prominent slaveowner) was due, in large measure, to the bishop’s status as a leading public opponent of abolitionism. Although this history was deeply disturbing to many of us, the class felt it was important to tell it honestly and without flinching.

We also spent a great deal of time discussing, among ourselves and with local community members, how to represent the enslaved woman Kitty, who had been owned by Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of the college’s board of trustees, in the 1840s and 1850s. One hundred and fifty years after her death, Kitty remains a controversial figure in Oxford; some believe she was treated with kindness and generosity by the bishop, while others maintain that she was forced to be the bishop’s mistress and that James Andrew was the father of her children. The class felt it important that all sides of the story be shown.

The students also debated at length how to represent Kitty. No photograph or painting of her exists, but they felt it was important to honor her with an image. At first the class decided to represent Kitty by a large silhouette, to be juxtaposed against Bishop Andrew’s oil portrait. In this way, several students asserted, we would call attention to ways in which Kitty had been “rendered invisible” over the generations. Yet in one of our joint meetings, several African-American community members gently suggested that in representing Kitty as a “blank,” we might inadvertently reproduce the very silencing of Kitty that the students sought to protest. In response, sophomore Keith McGill painted an oil portrait of Kitty. Students showed the painting to members of the college community and incorporated their varied responses to the picture in the exhibit.

We were also mindful of community members’ admonitions that the story of African Americans at Emory and Oxford before desegregation should not be “reduced” to slavery. Several students concentrated on researching the history of faith and educational achievement among Oxford’s African Americans, as well as the social history of post-slavery labor on the campus. Two students, who had worked to help restore the vandalized gravesite of a woman lynched in nearby Walton County in 1946, developed panels on memories of lynching and anti-lynching protests in our environs.

We also devoted an entire class session to discussing how to incorporate the great circular writing desk of Emory President Atticus Haygood. On this desk, Haygood wrote his classic Our Brother in Black (1881), a call for the reconciliation of the races, a refutation of theories of black inferiority, and a defense of the contributions of northern missionaries who taught former slaves. Yet the text was also a defense of segregation, and the desk itself was displayed for decades within Kitty’s cottage, the home originally erected for her on Bishop Andrew’s property, later relocated to Salem Campground, a long-segregated site.

At the center of the exhibition, we thus presented President Haygood’s desk as a fitting, ambiguous memorial to racial politics at Emory during the era of Jim Crow. The final stages of the exhibit emerged out of our close working relationship with the local African-American community. So many families lent us beautiful heirloom family photographs, depicting relatives who had worked for the college over the years, that we were able to turn the entire entrance hallway of the library into a “Family Gallery.” Several African-American and white families lent us lovely quilts that served as the backdrop for the exhibit. The Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (the MARIAL Center) generously covered the exhibition’s installation and opening costs.

On the day of the exhibit opening in mid-January, one hundred and fifty students and faculty and one hundred members of the local community gathered together in the Oxford College Day Chapel (built by African-American stone masons in 1875) to celebrate the long history of African-American contributions to Emory-at-Oxford. We shared memories of slavery, of the college during segregation, and of the long struggle for desegregation and civil rights. Professor Eugene Emory of Emory’s Psychology department eloquently shared his reflections over his descent from persons enslaved by Bishop John T. Emory (and perhaps from the Bishop himself). Representatives of local African-American and white families engaged in frank conversation about the painful challenges of “reconciliation at home.” We were all moved by soloist Mary Beavers’s haunting rendition of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.”

“Reconciliation,” as I understand the term, is not so much a completed state of being, as it is state of becoming—a continuing process of struggle, critical reflection, and conversation. By that measure, we have begun a long-term conversation about reconciliation with the African-American descendant community, a conversation that has led all of us to reflect upon, and celebrate, the central place of that community in the history of this institution.


In January 2002, the exhibition A Dream Deferred: African Americans at Emory and Oxford Colleges, 1836-1968, will re-open on the Atlanta campus in Woodruff Library’s Special Collections. A service of celebration and reflection, honoring the historic contributions of African Americans to Emory and Oxford colleges since 1836, will be held in Cannon Chapel, on the evening of January 22, as part of the University’s 2002 celebration of the life and legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.