The Accidental Slaveowner
The Accidental Slaveowner
Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family
University of Georgia Press, Paperback, 9780820340432, 383pp.
Publication Date: October 1, 2011
What does one contested account of an enslaved woman tell us about our difficult racial past? Part history, part anthropology, and part detective story, The Accidental Slaveowner traces, from the 1850s to the present day, how different groups of people have struggled with one powerful story about slavery.
For over a century and a half, residents of Oxford, Georgia (“the birthplace of Emory University”), have told and retold stories of the enslaved woman known as “Kitty” and her owner, Methodist bishop James Osgood Andrew, first president of Emory’s board of trustees. Bishop Andrew’s ownership of Miss Kitty and other enslaved persons triggered the 1844 great national schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church, presaging the Civil War. For many local whites, Bishop Andrew was only “accidentally” a slaveholder, and when offered her freedom, Kitty willingly remained in slavery out of loyalty to her master. Local African Americans, in contrast, tend to insist that Miss Kitty was the Bishop’s coerced lover and that she was denied her basic freedoms throughout her life.
Mark Auslander approaches these opposing narratives as “myths,” not as falsehoods but as deeply meaningful and resonant accounts that illuminate profound enigmas in American history and culture. After considering the multiple, powerful ways that the Andrew-Kitty myths have shaped perceptions of race in Oxford, at Emory, and among southern Methodists, Auslander sets out to uncover the “real” story of Kitty and her family. His years-long feat of collaborative detective work results in a series of discoveries and helps open up important arenas for reconciliation, restorative justice, and social healing.
"This extraordinary book is one of the very best—and certainly the most original—anthropological and historical studies of slavery I have read. Through a combination of superb ethnography, original analysis, and painstaking archival work, Auslander tells an important and utterly compelling story. Thoughtfully organized and beautifully written, The Accidental Slaveowner will be an essential source for everyone interested in slavery and in the history of race relationships in the United States."—Rosalind Shaw, author of Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone
"This stunning book applies anthropological perspectives on myth and kinship to the pervasive legacy of slavery, which still dominates American understandings of race, humanity, freedom. Auslander's skilled collaboration with the descendants of 'Miss Kitty,' sometimes called 'the person who caused the civil war,' brings the unexpected story of her family to light, forging firm links across separations of black and white, slave and master, past and present. In the process, haunting fallacies are exorcised, and nagging paradoxes of blood and betrayal find voice, making possible new lines of debate, and novel pursuits of understanding, even justice."—Jean Comaroff, University of Chicago
"The Accidental Slaveowner is a beautifully written account of the complex ways in which family and institutional histories and memories of slavery are told and retold by blacks and whites in this country. At its heart is the important national story of the split of the Methodist Episcopal Church into northern and southern factions over the meaning of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. Mark Auslander has taken this institutional history and uncovered the personal stories of families and communities who felt and still feel the reverberations of that conflict down to the present day. With a detective’s attention to detail and a novelist’s love of people and their stories, Auslander has written a lucid, passionate work."—Leslie M. Harris, Emory University
"In 1844, a dispute over ownership of an enslaved woman named Catherine Boyd split the American Methodist Church, a fateful step on the road to secession and Civil War. In this beautiful, haunting book, Mark Auslander peels back the layers of history, memory, and myth that have grown up around 'Miss Kitty,' taking us to the heart of our nation’s conflicted racial past and present."—James T. Campbell, Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History, Stanford University
"Though this is a scholarly work, it offers a fascinating glimpse into a slice of Georgia history that tends to be interpreted very differently by white people and by black people. "—Teresa Weaver, Atlanta Magazine
"You will want to read The Accidental Slaveowner for the rest of the story!"—Bishop Woodie W. White, United Methodist Reporter