October 17, 2011

'Accidental Slaveowner' has roots in Oxford, grounded in MARBL research

Mark Auslander

Author Mark Auslander to give public reading Oct. 24

By Maureen McGavin

Author Mark Auslander will hold a public reading and booksigning next week at Emory University to discuss his new release, "The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family" (University of Georgia Press, 2011). The book details various myths about Catherine "Miss Kitty" Andrew Boyd, an enslaved woman owned by Methodist Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of Emory's board of trustees when the original campus was located in Oxford, Ga.

The event will take place at 4 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24 in the Jones Room of the Woodruff Library. During the discussion, Auslander will talk about the important role Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) played in his research.

A former professor at Oxford College and in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, Auslander is now an associate professor of anthropology and director of the Museum of Culture and Environment at Central Washington University.

His interest in Miss Kitty's story began when he was teaching his freshman "Introduction to Sociology" class at Oxford. Auslander took the class on a brief walking tour of an old, segregated cemetery.

"To illustrate questions about race, I wanted them to observe the discrepancies between the two sides of the cemetery in Oxford," he recalls. "The white side of the cemetery was beautifully maintained, but the African American side — the city was not keeping it up."

Auslander thought it was a good lesson on 21st-century attitudes about race in the South, but his students wanted to do something more — take it on as a cleanup project. As group members worked on restoring the cemetery and documenting the history of the buried, they realized how many generations of families had worked at Emory, in slavery and freedom.

"And we began to hear more and more about the story of Miss Kitty [from the townspeople]," Auslander says. "That's really what launched me on this book and took me into MARBL records and into archives around the country."

The book examines the effects of Miss Kitty's story on perceptions of race in Oxford and among southern Methodists, and chronicles Auslander's efforts to find out the true story of Miss Kitty and her family.

The author eventually located Boyd's descendants — two great-great-great-granddaughters living in Philadelphia — and spent time with them at Oxford and Emory, showing them her gravesite and documents pertaining to her life.

Auslander says the MARBL collections were the cornerstone of his research for the book.

"I could not have done this work without the MARBL resources and the extraordinary collections," he says.

He reviewed Board of Trustees record books and old general store ledgers, as well as letters and diaries belonging to Emory professors, administrators and board members.

He mentions Ginger (Cain) Smith, now MARBL's interim director, and Randall Burkett, curator of African American Collections, as particularly instrumental in helping him find information in the archives, including documentation that slaves helped build the first Emory College in Oxford.

The MARBL staff knew the historical Emory records were important, but "it never occurred to anyone that they would tell us so much about the history of slavery at Emory," Auslander says. "That's the great thing about archives. Each generation comes back with new questions, and archives lead us in new and unexpected directions."

The Oct. 24 event will include discussion about possible memorials at Emory for remembering and reflecting upon slavery and Jim Crow on campus, as well as about medical discoveries that came from treating enslaved people at Atlanta Medical College (now Emory School of Medicine), Auslander says.

The event is sponsored by the President's Commission on Race and Ethnicity, the Office of Community and Diversity and MARBL. The book, released Oct. 1, will be available for sale and signing outside the Jones Room.

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