The “Family Business”
Slavery, Double Consciousness, and Objects of Memory at Emory University
This essay explores forms of memory work engaged in by families who trace their histories back to slave owners and enslaved persons associated with Emory University. My title is taken from a phrase sometimes used by such families in reference to the historically white-dominated institution of higher learning with which their families have long been associated. Stella Perkins, an African American woman descended from slaves owned by one of the founders of Emory College, whose family has continued to work at Emory through six generations, remarked sardonically, “I suppose you can say Emory has been the family business, practically forever!” After pausing a beat, she added with a mischievous smile, “Of course, for Emory, we were the family business, bought and paid for!”
Descendant families, who often trace their lineages back to both slaveholders and the enslaved, negotiate at times ambivalent relations to educational institutions. Under what circumstances are pride, resentment, and disappointment expressed toward the institution? What kinds of family narratives are invoked or repressed when descendants are students or faculty at institutions at which their ancestors were enslaved (or which are named for the person who enslaved their ancestors)? How, in short, does Du Boisian “double consciousness,” the sensation of simultaneously being within and outside of a dominant narrative, function when family histories, academic institutional histories, and enslavement intersect?
In this essay, I approach this tangled ideological and emotional web through a range of physical objects and geographic locations, ranging from trees to headstones, that are sites of profound ambivalence for persons descended from enslaved families closely intertwined with the history of Emory College. As W. E. B. Du Bois long ago suggested, the “veil” of double consciousness is not experienced continuously but “descends,” often with sudden abruptness, when an outrageous incident or image disrupts the quotidian flow of experience, forcefully exposing the subject to the raw edges of structures of oppression.1 What is the nature of these abrasive memory prompts, and how do they operate in the context of educational institutions, ostensibly devoted to the universal celebration of knowledge and human dignity?
Writing as a sociocultural anthropologist, I take as my point of departure the foundational work of symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner on the “polyphony” or “multivocality” of symbolic forms.2 A single symbolic form may speak in many voices, carrying a range of emotional charges and ideational content that might be variously activated in different contexts. Thus, a physical object that in one context may evoke pleasure or exuberance may in other contexts trigger pain or despair. Our experiences of the past and our contemplation of a potential future are in many respects built up through our dynamic engagement with these “multivalent” symbolic elements that constitute the physical, meaningful environment that we continually negotiate in our everyday lives.
Headstones and the “Family Business”
I begin with Stella Perkins’s half-humorous characterization of Emory University as the “family business.” She made the utterance on a warm spring afternoon in 2000 as she was assisting my students and me in a class project to document and restore the historically African American cemetery in Oxford, Georgia, where Emory College was founded in the late 1830s. Within this burial ground were interred hundreds of persons of color who in slavery and in freedom had worked in one way or another for Emory and for the leading white families associated with the institution. In 1965, soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the Oxford city white leadership had acted, in effect, to privatize the historically white section of the city cemetery as a private “historical foundation.” From 1965 until 2000 the white-dominated city council transferred all burial fees, including those collected from African American families, to the private foundation, which only disbursed funds for the care of the white cemetery. The African American cemetery had become, in consequence, overgrown with privet hedges and littered with fallen tree limbs. Many families of color were thus unable to reach the burial sites of their loved ones. Compounding these insults, in 1990 the city council authorized the clear-cutting of the oldest section of the black cemetery by an unscrupulous white pulpwood merchant. Scores of headstones were damaged or plowed under. Hundreds of trees that had functioned as informal burial markers for the African American matriarchs of the community were cut down.
As my students learned of these multilayered injustices, they became committed to partnering with the African American community to help restore the cemetery and to document, whenever possible, the location of the burial sites of enslaved persons and their descendants. We worked with local church congregations each weekend through the spring, clearing paths, repairing erosion damage, unearthing headstones, and planting flowerbeds. Stella Perkins was one of our principal community historians, decoding difficult-to-read inscriptions on weathered headstones and recalling the unmarked burial sites of her kith and kin.
On that March afternoon, as she stood surveying a dozen newly uncovered headstones, Stella was in a rather meditative mood. She motioned to me and several of my students as they paused from raking and pruning and remarked,
You know, just about everyone you see here was connected to Emory. A lot of the menfolk brought in the crops that fed the students and the professors. The ladies here, a lot of them were my aunts. They took in laundry and cooked for the Emory boys in those boardinghouses. I guess that goes all the way back to slavery times. Not that we had a choice back then, but we were working for the college even then, when it owned the whole town. I suppose you can say Emory has been the “family business,” practically forever!
Then, to my students’ great delight, she added with a wink, “Of course, for Emory, we were the family business, bought and paid for! … Hard to say where our families stopped and the college began.”
Significantly, her ambiguous commentary was inspired by a series of aged headstones marking the final resting places of many of her ancestors and collateral relations, a number of whom had been born in slavery. As she spoke, she was gazing down the slope of the African American cemetery, still scarred by erosion and scattered with downed tree limbs, toward the broad expanse of the historically white cemetery, its pristine marble headstones and neatly mowed lawns bathed in the soft golden glow of the afternoon sun. The visual tableau in front of her thus perfectly encapsulated the ironies of the labor history she sought to characterize through humor. In the foreground were the traces of those who had labored, as bondspeople in the antebellum era and as underpaid laborers under Jim Crow, on behalf of the white Methodist bishops and Emory faculty and presidents buried in the carefully conserved pastoral background.
Although framed in playfully ironic terms, her wording expressed a degree of pride in the contributions she and her family had made to the college across the generations. Like most present-day African American residents of Oxford, Georgia, Stella is a descendant of George Sims (ca. 1830–ca. 1900) and his wife, Angeline Sims (ca. 1840–ca. 1910), who were enslaved in Oxford.3 George and Angeline were the property of Richard L. Sims (ca. 1795–1856), a prominent white landowner and political figure. He in turn willed them to his daughter Sarah Lee Sims in 1856. In 1836 Richard was one of the founding commissioners of the city of Oxford. In 1840 he was listed as a founding trustee of Oxford Female Academy, closely tied to Emory College; he also represented Newton County in various state political gatherings. Among his children were a prominent Covington lawyer and a Confederate brigadier general.
George and Angeline Sims, community members recall, had four daughters, who in turn bore a total of forty-nine daughters. Most of the Sims granddaughters married locally, and “for that reason, we are all related here,” remarks Stella. Soon after the cemetery restoration project, Stella served on the program committee for Homecoming service at Rust Chapel United Methodist Church, the congregation her great-grandfather Thomas Anderson (the son-in-law of George Sims) had helped to found in the late 1860s. She designed the cover of the program, featuring an elaborate tree boasting thirteen branches, each branch bearing the name of one of the thirteen major African American families of Oxford, including the Sims and Anderson lines. As she proudly showed me and my students the cover, she remarked, “And remember, every one of these families worked for Emory, in one way or another. So even in the old days, you could say it was as much ours as anyone else’s.”
Several weeks later, however, Stella’s life took an unfortunate turn. She was abruptly informed by the corporation to which Emory had contracted all food service that she was being laid off permanently, effective immediately. With the assistance of concerned students and faculty, Stella appealed her dismissal, arguing that she had worked for the college food service for twenty-five years and that her family had in one way or another worked for Emory since the institution’s founding in the era of slavery. All these entreaties fell on deaf ears. The university administration insisted they had no say over personnel decisions made by a private corporation. Corporate officials in turn stated they were under no obligation to discuss personnel matters with any third parties.
Stella was mortified both by her termination and by the refusal of anyone in authority to discuss the matter with her. “We’ve worked so long for the college, we practically brought up all these generations of students… . Now we can’t even get anyone to return my phone calls. Everyone says this doesn’t have anything to do with them, that it is ‘just business.’” To her mind, at least, a moral economy that had existed since the time of slavery in Oxford in which the college, however resented it might have been at times, could at least be counted on to “look after its people” had been irretrievably ruptured.
Stella was unemployed for several months until she was hired by the local Wal-Mart, where she continues to work until this day. She and many family members remain rather embittered toward Emory. One of her cousins remarked, “Well, the school likes to say it is one big community. But you could still say it is the Big House, after all these years… . Only difference is when they don’t want to count you as a member of that community, they don’t have to put you on the [auction] block anymore. They just ‘outsource’ you. Then you’re not their responsibility anymore.” A century and a half after legal emancipation, the legacy of enslavement continues to infuse popular perceptions of the institution.
The 1966 Marker
The disquieting legacies of slavery and Jim Crow are also, at times, brought to conscious awareness through the only visible memorial to African Americans in the Emory University system, a tree on the central quadrangle of the original Emory College grounds in Oxford, Georgia, now termed Oxford College of Emory University. Planted in 1966 by representatives of the class of 1913 in honor of two of Emory’s most celebrated African American employees, the tree is marked at its base by a small plaque:
The members of the class of 1913
In loving appreciation
Dedicate this tree to the memory of
1858 to 1923
1886 to 1958
Who together contributed 95 years
Of faithful and efficient service to “Old Emory”
Dedicated June 12, 1966
The 1943 Emory at Oxford College yearbook was dedicated to Henry “Billy” Mitchell, longtime chief janitor and groundskeeper of the college. At his 1958 funeral, eight years before the tree planting, he was eulogized by college dean Virgil Eady Sr., who stated, “Billy Mitchell’s friends included people in many stations of life—Congressmen, U.S. Senators, Methodist Bishops, great and influential business and professional men and women.” Other white speakers referred to his family’s “long service” to Emory.4
The meanings of the plaque and the tree to Oxford’s African American residents are a good deal more complex, conditioned by intricate family histories that stretch far back into “slavery times.” As is widely known in the local black community (although less appreciated by their white counterparts), Henry “Billy” Mitchell was descended on both his mother’s and father’s sides from persons owned by the white founders of Emory College. On his mother’s side, his lineage stretched back to the family of Ellen and Cornelius Robinson, enslaved by the physician and natural scientist Alexander Means, longtime member of the Emory College faculty who for a time served as college president. Cornelius (b. 1836) and Ellen (b. 1835) were married to one another and were allowed to live in a small house behind the Means mansion, Orne Villa, on present-day Emory Street in Oxford. Cornelius, a Native American, was Means’s valet. Ellen was the personal maid of Means’s wife. As such, they seemed to have occupied the highest status among all those enslaved in the Means household. After emancipation, Cornelius and Ellen formed an independent household, which by 1870 consisted of their children Cora (b. 1857), George (b. 1859), Sarah (b. 1861), John (b. 1863), and Thaddius (b. 1867).
Sarah Robinson married Robert, the son of Thomas Mitchell, who had been enslaved by Bishop James Osgood Andrew, first president of Emory’s board of trustees. The circumstances of Bishop Andrew’s ownership of slaves, many African American residents of Oxford note, were for a time of considerable national importance. Bishop Andrew acquired Thomas’s father, James Mitchell, and approximately fourteen other enslaved persons through his marriage to his second wife, Ann Leonora Mounger Greenwood, in January 1844. Her first husband, Thomas Greenwood, had died in 1825, leaving her with dower rights over some of his slaves and supervisory rights over his other slaves destined for his minor children. These included four children by his previous 1805 marriage to Nancy Mitchell, daughter of the slave owner and Revolutionary War veteran Jacob Mitchell, an established Greene County planter who also passed away in 1825.
In May 1844, the fact that Bishop Andrew owned the fourteen Mitchell slaves, as well as the enslaved woman Miss Kitty and the enslaved man Billy, a former slave of the bishop’s mother-in-law, became a matter of national controversy. Northern delegates to the national conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church protested Bishop Andrew’s ownership of slaves. The resulting controversy triggered the national schism of the Methodist Church and the creation of the proslavery Methodist Episcopal Church, South, a breach that remained unhealed until 1939. The dispute, sometimes termed a “dress rehearsal for the Civil War,” highlighted the intimate intersections of religious faith and the slavery question in antebellum America.
In any event, after the death of his second wife, Ann Leonora Greenwood Andrew, in 1855, Bishop Andrew transferred most of the “Greenwood” slaves to Ann Leonora’s surviving children. Many of the Mitchell/Greenwood slaves were thus returned to Greene County, Georgia, where they were rented out for agrarian labor until emancipation. However, the enslaved young man James Mitchell and his son Thomas Mitchell were transferred to Ann Leonora’s daughter Mary Elizabeth Greenwood, who married Emory faculty member Luther M. Smith. After Mary Elizabeth’s death in 1859, her property, including her slaves, all passed fully to Professor Smith, who became Emory’s president after the Civil War. The enslaved Mitchell family thus remained in Oxford after emancipation, and some continue to reside there until this day.
One of the sons of Robert and Sarah was Henry “Billy” Mitchell, memorialized by the quadrangle tree, who served as chief janitor of Emory at Oxford for much of the first half of the twentieth century. His daughter, Sarah Francis Mitchell Wise, and grandson Billy Wise were close friends to many faculty and students at Oxford College.
For four decades the tree has been subject to wry observations by members of the Oxford African American community, many of whom have been employed at the college and who are mindful of the complex family history noted above. Several years ago, I stood in front of the tree in the company of Mrs. Emogene Williams, one of the most respected African American community historians in Newton County, Georgia. She herself is a direct descendant of Reverend Toney Baker, owned and sired by a prominent white member of Emory College’s founding board. The leading white faculty and board members at Emory had sponsored Reverend Baker’s education and supported him as he founded Bethlehem Baptist Church, now the oldest African American church in the county.
As we gazed at the tree, Mrs. Williams sighed and quietly remarked,
How they loved Billy, their best friend, they called him. But 1966, you know, that was two years before they even admitted the first black student to study on this campus. They’d happily plant a tree dedicated to us. They just wouldn’t let us in the front door… . And the amazing thing is, it was in part because of Billy’s family being held as slaves that these same white folks here at Emory went and created the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. They just couldn’t bear being told by northerners that a bishop couldn’t own slaves. So they up and left the church so they could keep Billy and all his kin in slavery! And then they go and erect a monument to him for being so loyal. Honestly, when I look at this plaque and at this tree, I don’t know whether or not to laugh or cry!
She noted in turn, in reference to Bob Hammond, that after his death his widow donated one hundred dollars, a significant amount in 1923, to the Emory building fund, supporting the institution that he so deeply loved but that his relatives could not legally attend.
It is important to emphasize that Mrs. Williams is devoted to Emory and to Oxford College, even as she remains a pointed critic of much of its history during slavery times and Jim Crow. Her daughter, Reverend Avis Williams, one of the first African Americans to matriculate at Oxford, holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from Emory University. Emogene and Avis have lectured to Emory students and faculty on numerous occasions and have been close collaborators and consultants in my own research for over a decade. They have been repeatedly honored by the institution, yet they are conscious of the many ways in which they continue to stand outside of its mainstream embrace. “Every time I walk by that tree,” remarks Avis, “I remember my first week at the college as a freshman when my room was made by a maid who was an aunt of mine. Was I inside at last, or was I still outside, looking in?”
The Family Reunion Photograph
I next turn to an enigmatic photograph in the possession of John P. Godfrey Jr. (known as JP), one of Oxford’s most prominent African American citizens. JP’s paternal grandfather, Israel Godfrey (1849–1929), was owned in slavery times by Jeptha M. Cody, a wealthy Covington planter who had close ties to the Emory board members and faculty. After emancipation, Israel worked in various capacities for Emory College, serving in the mid-1870s as chief stonemason for the college’s day chapel, which stands to this day. He was primarily compensated in land by the cash-poor postbellum college; most of that land remains within the Godfrey family. Israel’s second marriage was to Sallie Sims, daughter of George and Angeline Sims, the great-grandparents of Sallie Perkins.
Israel had close ties to the leading white families of Oxford, including the Candlers and Branhams, who loom large in Emory’s official “white” history. Warren Candler, a prominent bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, served as Emory College’s president and later as chancellor of its successor institution, Emory University, an entity made possible through a substantial gift from his brother, Asa Candler, the Coca Cola magnate.
The photograph in question, taken around 1920, depicts a reunion of the white Candler-Branham extended family in Oxford. On the extreme left of the image sits Israel Godfrey; six to his right sits his wife, Sally Sims Godfrey, who through her mother, Angeline, traced her descent to a Native American Creek community in eastern Newton County along the Alcovy River.
The photograph has long been perplexing to JP and to other African American and white residents of Oxford. How was it in the 1920s that two African Americans, in the depths of the Jim Crow era, are seated, not standing, in the family reunion photograph of one of the most powerful white families in Georgia? Israel, many have noted, sits stolidly, “like he owns the place.” His wife, Sally, does not look at the camera but gazes to her right, perhaps at her husband. What was going through her mind at that moment?
JP regards the image with considerable ambivalence. He wonders at times what it was that led his grandfather to be held in such high esteem among the white leadership of Emory and Oxford. How, immediately after the Civil War, did he manage to convince Emory’s white leaders to donate land for the African American community Methodist church, even after the community broke with the white-dominated Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and affiliated with the northern Methodist Church? Had he perhaps done something to betray his people? Was he perhaps used as a “stud” or breeder back in slavery times, impregnating enslaved women against their will?
In any event, JP is well aware that he and his family have benefited across the years from the special standing Israel had in powerful white eyes. He recalls that during the 1954–55 school year he had to suspend his studies at Clark College to care for his ill father. The dean of Oxford College at that time, Virgil Eady Sr., hired him that year as a janitor; however, “that whole year,” Mr. Godfrey recalls, “I never saw a mop or a broom.” He was allowed informally to attend college classes, albeit in the rear of the classroom, so that he did not fall behind in his premedical studies.
Forty years later, Mr. Godfrey returned to settle in Oxford and was elected to the city council, where he led successful struggles to desegregate the city’s cemetery and its police force. He now finds himself, as the “elder statesman” of the city, in the curious position of regularly defending Oxford College at city council meetings in the face of residents who wonder why the college has special municipal tax and financial advantages. “I always have to tell them,” JP says laughingly, “that there wouldn’t be an Oxford city if it wasn’t for Emory. Pretty funny, if you think about it, that we are the ones safeguarding Emory’s interests, though!” Yet he still finds himself wondering about the photograph. “Just what kind of hold did grandfather have on those white folks? And what does that mean about the rest of us?”
Miss Kitty’s Headstones: Old and New
Next, consider a deeply contested headstone on the other side of the cemetery from where Israel Godfrey and the other African American pioneers of Oxford are interred. This simple stone marker poignantly illuminates the contradictory and enduring legacies of slavery in Emory University’s self-conception. Dedicated in 2000, the stone honors the enslaved woman known as Kitty, owned by Methodist bishop James Osgood Andrew. Standard white accounts hold that according to the terms under which he had inherited Kitty as a girl, Bishop Andrew attempted to emancipate her in 1841 (when she turned nineteen) by offering to send her to Liberia, where many freed slaves had been resettled. According to a legal document produced by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, then president of the college, Kitty refused to go to Liberia. Bishop Andrew, it is said, then built her a small cabin behind his own in which she resided “as free as the laws of Georgia would admit.”5
White authors further state that she married a free black man named Nathan Shell, had children by him, and continued to live in Oxford until her death in the early 1850s. It is asserted that on her deathbed, Kitty exulted that she would soon see “Miss Amelia,” the late first wife of Bishop Andrew, “in the better land.”6
As noted above, Bishop Andrew’s ownership of Kitty and fifteen other slaves became a matter of national controversy in 1844, when his slave-owning status was publicly debated at the annual conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, held in New York City that year. Northern abolitionist bishops requested that Andrew resign from the episcopacy, a move denounced by Longstreet and Andrew’s other southern supporters, who asserted that Andrew was only “accidentally” a slaveholder. The next year, the Methodist Church formally split over the issue of slavery and was not reunited until 1939.7
Oxford’s African American residents contest nearly every detail of the above account. Many older residents of the community assert that Miss Kitty was the coerced mistress of Bishop Andrew and that he fathered at least one of her three children. They note that the historical record is ambiguous on Miss Kitty’s origins. Although Bishop Andrew repeatedly asserted that he had been “willed” Kitty by a rich woman in Augusta, an exhaustive search of antebellum probate and deed records in Richmond County, Georgia, has failed to unearth any such bequest. Newton County, Georgia, tax records give no record of any antebellum freedman by the name of Nathan or Shell. The identity of Kitty’s parents remains unknown; since Kitty was light-skinned and comparatively privileged among Oxford slaves, it is widely assumed that her father was a prominent white man. (Some elderly Oxford African Americans recall their parents and grandparents asserting that Bishop Andrew himself was Kitty’s father rather than her lover.) All doubted that a free man of color named Nathan Shell, Kitty’s alleged husband, ever existed.
In any event, the century and a half since Miss Kitty’s passing have seen repeated symbolic struggles over the meaning of her life and her death in Oxford. Buried within the Andrew family plot, she is the only person of color generally acknowledged to be interred within the city’s long-segregated white cemetery. In the late 1930s, on the eve of the reunification of the northern and southern denominations of the Methodist Church, the wealthy Atlanta businessman and Emory University trustee H. Y. McCord arranged to transport the former slave cabin from the land once owned by Bishop Andrew to Salem Campground, at the time an all-white religious campground about twelve miles away. McCord simultaneously erected a large stone tablet near Kitty’s grave in the Oxford City Cemetery on which was inscribed the standard white account of Kitty’s life, emphasizing Bishop Andrew’s blamelessness in the matter.8
Meanwhile, the old cabin, renamed the Kitty’s Cottage Museum, served as a memorial to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy at Salem until it was returned in 1994 to the city of Oxford, where white members of the nearly all-white Oxford Historical Shrine Society labored to restore it. Most Oxford African Americans have refused to enter the cabin, which remains a considerable site of controversy. “For us,” an older African American man explained, “this building is a place of violation, not of love.” Local families even debated the meaning of the fact that Miss Kitty, interred in Bishop Andrew’s family plot, was the only person of color known to be buried in the historically white section of the Oxford city cemetery. Many whites saw this a sign of the close bonds of friendship between the bishop’s family and his enslaved “servants,” whereas most African Americans argued that, even in death, the bishop sought to control his former slaves. Many questioned if Bishop Andrew or any slaveholder could ever be said to have owned other human beings “accidentally,” as his defenders claimed.
In 2000, as African Americans in Oxford became increasingly vocal in their protests over the enduring segregation of the city cemetery and over the failure of the city police department to hire any African American patrol officers, the white leadership of the city sought to appease them by placing a small headstone to Kitty in the Andrew family plot. The headstone read, “Kitty Andrew Shell, 1822–c. 1850.” No African Americans were consulted in the wording of the stone, which offended nearly all members of the local black community. As J.P. observed, “We have known plenty of black families connected to Emory across the generations, but no one has ever heard of a black family named Shell! … And there [are] no tax records of a free man of color named Nathan in Newton County… . It is just another one of those fantasies, we think.”
In the course of researching my book, The Accidental Slaveowner, I learned that there had in fact been an enslaved man who referred to himself as “Nathan Boyd” and who had considered himself married to Kitty, although in bank records he referred to her as Catherine. This discovery led me in time to locate the descendants of Catherine Boyd’s eldest son, Alford Boyd, who escaped from slavery in April 1865 and who became an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, serving in Iowa and Illinois. Over the past several years, I have become close to Catherine Boyd’s great-great-great-granddaughters, Cynthia and Darcel Caldwell, who reside in Philadelphia.
The Caldwell sisters visited Emory and Oxford in February 2011 to participate in an international conference on slavery and universities. Their trip was eased by an official declaration issued by the Emory board of trustees several weeks earlier of a “Statement of Regret” for the university’s historical connections with slavery: “Emory acknowledges its entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the College’s early history. Emory regrets both this undeniable wrong and the University’s decades of delay in acknowledging slavery’s harmful legacy. As Emory University looks forward, it seeks the wisdom always to discern what is right and the courage to abide by its mission of using knowledge to serve humanity.”9
On the conference’s final day, hundreds gathered in a talking circle in Oxford to reflect on the legacies of enslavement at the university and in the wider community. A beautiful quilt created by community members to welcome home the descendants was unrolled. The sisters were handed a proclamation by the city’s mayor, declaring that the day was devoted to Catherine and Nathan Boyd’s descendants. Darcel stood before the assembled crowd and pointed to a pin Emory’s vice president had recently given her marking the university’s 175th anniversary. “At first I thought this morning, oh, I shouldn’t wear this, since this is Miss Kitty’s day. But then I thought, wait, this is her university, this is your university!” The applause was tumultuous.
It was a beautiful homecoming in so many ways. Many remarked that the 175th anniversary pin, which might have seemed a bit alienating, had been skillfully recuperated by Darcel. Alice Williamson, an elderly African American resident of Oxford, noted approvingly, “She just turned that pin right around. It doesn’t just belong to the administration or official Emory. It belongs to all of us!” As an object of memory, the pin was effectively reclassified as a symbolic instrument of inclusion, even liberation.
Double Consciousness and the Memory Quilt
On center stage during the homecoming and reconciliation ceremony was the memory quilt, itself a complex dramatization of double consciousness in Du Bois’s sense. This artwork had been produced by Atlanta-based artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier working in close collaboration with members of Grace United Methodist Church in Covington, a historically African American congregation that counts among its members many of the families long ago enslaved at and around Emory College. Entitled Unraveling Miss Kitty’s Cloak, the work was expressly developed to welcome Miss Kitty’s descendants back to Newton County and to honor more broadly all the African American families historically bound to Emory from the time of slavery onward.
In this striking, multifaceted work, Marshall-Linnemeier drew upon the spiritual Ifa traditions of the Yoruba peoples of West Africa, as well as African American quilting traditions of the American South. Marshall-Linnemeier initially proposed that the work be shaped like an agan, the swirling ancestral mask used in the Yoruba Egungun ceremony of ancestral veneration. Yet as the project developed, it became clear to the artist and her community collaborators that the work needed to be structured more as a large quilt than as a three-dimensional masquerade costume. As Alice Sanderson, a senior member of Grace, remarked, “Miss Kitty’s children were just ripped out of this community, like so many other thousands gone. We need to help put them back in our family stories. A quilt seems a good way to do that, don’t you think?” Other women spoke of the power of quilts to evoke and “stitch together” family stories of struggle and endurance, and they emphasized ways in which the honored dead have long been remembered through quilts incorporating elements of clothing they wore during their lives.
Listening to these thoughts, Marshall-Linnemeier came to feel that the work needed to emphasize the general figure of the “Ancestral Mother” without limiting itself to any one maternal figure in particular. She thus flanked the upper cutout image of a great tree with outward-facing silhouettes of a woman’s profile. Anna Lockley, who helped sew the final work, nodded approvingly: “That could be any one of our mothers, any strong black woman.” Janet Porter chimed in: “When I look at those profiles, I am reminded of the great line of women we come from.” After discussion with the “ladies of the church,” Lynn placed a striking red oval in the tree’s trunk to evoke a hollow, signaling the hidden mysteries of lineage and ancestry that had for so long been obscured in the county.
Although the dominant tone of the work is celebratory, some of the images are avowedly painful. On the base of a photographic image of two young African American girls dressed in slave clothing, the artist has written the ambiguous word “Gifted,” signaling both their God-given gifts and the painful fact that like so many enslaved persons they were transacted as dowry gifts at the time of their white owners’ marriages. One church member recently told me, “I can’t take my eyes off of that picture. Those were some woman’s daughters, taken away from her, never to be seen again. And they are somebody’s sisters.… Just given away as presents, as gifts… . So much was lost to us. But here and now, we give honor to them still.” She drew particular connections with the fate of several of the young female slaves owned by Alexander Means, who gave them away as dowry presents when his daughters were married: “Those children were torn away from their own family so Dr. Means’s white daughters could start their own family… . We need to think on them and all those who once were lost and now are found.”
Similar ambivalent sentiments of loss and restoration informed the community’s discussion over whose face should be visible near the top of the work. Marshall-Linnemeier had initially wanted a female figure associated with Kitty or an Afro-Caribbean “mambo” priestess behind a wedding veil. Yet in keeping with community wishes, she placed behind the veil a treasured photograph of Reverend Willis Jefferson King (1886–1976), a Methodist bishop who at one point pastored Grace United Methodist Church. This was a rather poignant choice, linked in a subtle way to the story of Miss Kitty and Bishop Andrew: Bishop King had been president of Samuel Huston College and Gammon Theological Seminary and had been honored in 1975 as the longest-serving United Methodist bishop. He had, significantly, been an early bishop elected in the so-called Central Jurisdiction, a segregated “all-negro” entity created in 1939 when the northern and southern wings of the Methodist Church were united, in principle healing the schism that had originated in 1844 caused by Bishop Andrew’s status as a slave owner. As one older member of the congregation remarked,
That great man should have been a bishop of the whole reunited Methodist Church, not segregated off in the Central Jurisdiction… . You know, the whole reason for the Central Jurisdiction was that white southerners in 1939 couldn’t get over their version of the Bishop Andrew and Miss Kitty story: they just wanted our people kept in “their place,” you know. And our northern brothers, to be perfectly frank, just sold us out… . So I think it is right and fitting that Bishop King is honored right up there at the top of our whole family tree!
The structural violence done to African American respect and dignity within the Methodist community and the wider world is redressed through this elaborate tapestry, in which a long-excluded patriarch is given his full due in the restored lineage of this community of faith. Marshall-Linnemeier had initially conceived of the veil in terms of Yoruba imagery of the priestess as bride of the orisha. Yet for community members the more salient associations were Du Bois’s discussion of double consciousness and the “veil” of racial distinction. Hence, the appropriate subject beyond the veil is not a female initiate but a male bishop who was long forced to labor “behind the veil” of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “color line.”
As the great quilt descended, backlit by the afternoon sun streaming in through the church’s great windows, it was hard not to think of the final lines of Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk: “If somewhere in this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitiful yet masterful, then anon in His good time America shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free. Free, free as the sunshine trickling down the morning into these high windows of mine.”10 (Indeed, when one local African American woman saw the quilt unveiled, she nodded her head and remarked, “Ah, the souls of black folk.”)
Next to Bishop King’s visage was sewn in a reproduced photograph of Miss Kitty / Catherine Boyd’s eldest children, Reverend Alford Boyd and his wife, Malvina. Congregants found great meaning in the positioning of Reverend Boyd, who had left the proslavery Methodist Episcopal Church, South, of his enslaved boyhood to seek ordination in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, next to the veiled image of Bishop King, who had served first in the northern Methodist Church and then in the reunited Methodist Church. As Emma Horne, the Grace United Methodist Church historian notes, “Right there, you see the whole remarkable history of race and Methodism in America, of the schism that started here at Emory and which we are still dealing with today.”
A New Headstone
The quilt and the homecoming ceremony were deeply meaningful to all the descendants present. Yet the “Kitty” headstone in the Andrew plot still rankled for the Boyd-Caldwell descendants and other African American residents of Newton County. “She’s still identified by her slave name,” remarked Oxford resident Reverend Avis Williams. Following the Slavery and University conference in February 2011, the Oxford City Council debated the matter and decided to make things right by commissioning a new headstone inscribed with words that had been approved by the family members and the local African American community’s representatives: “Catherine ‘Kitty’ Andrew Boyd, c. 1822–1851. Beloved wife, mother and member of the Oxford and Emory communities.” The headstone was dedicated on Sunday, October 23, one week after the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. As a number of Oxford residents remarked, in its own small way, this local act of rededication was a significant chapter in building the “Beloved Community” that Dr. King so longed for.
During this period, the Emory University administration developed plans to celebrate the university’s 175th anniversary. To mark the celebrations on December 7, the university recognized 175 “history makers,” individuals, living and dead, who had made profound contributions to the institution and to humanity. Among the 175 was Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd; her great-great-great-granddaughters, Darcel and Cynthia Caldwell, were invited down to Atlanta to receive a medal in Miss Kitty’s honor. Also present at the award luncheon was a great grandson of Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the owner of Miss Kitty. Bishop Andrew’s descendant warmly greeted Darcel and told her mischievously, “You know, we might be cousins!” A few minutes later Darcel remarked with a laugh that the day was turning into a “regular family reunion.”
Meanwhile, a campaign has gradually developed to establish a scholarship at Emory for descendants of families enslaved at Emory and in Oxford. The idea was first publicly proposed in 2000 by Eugene Emory, an African American professor of psychology at Emory University who traces his ancestry back to the white family of Bishop John Emory, for whom Emory College was named. Dr. Emory participated in the opening ceremony for an exhibition curated by me and my students at Oxford College on Emory and Oxford’s early African American history. In front of a hushed audience in the Oxford College Day Chapel, built by former slave Israel Godfrey in 1875, Eugene Emory spoke about his complex family history, including the likelihood that he is a direct lineal descendant of Bishop Emory, who had been a slave owner in the state of Maryland. He discussed his own sense of moral ambivalence walking across the main Emory campus, where each day, in his words, he encountered signs “bearing my name, or at least the name I bear, but not acknowledging our real history.” From family oral history, he explained, he had inferred that his ancestral mother was most likely an enslaved woman who was coerced into a sexual relationship with Bishop Emory. Some years ago, Dr. Emory traveled to a point near Reisterstown, Maryland, where Bishop Emory died in a carriage accident on December 17, 1835. At the spring 2000 ceremony, Dr. Emory shared with the audience his torn emotional reactions, standing on that charged spot: “Was I supposed to feel remorse over the loss of my likely paternal ancestor? Was I supposed to mourn the death of the man who may well have raped my ancestral mother?” He then proposed that the best way to honor the memory of those who had labored as chattel on and around the Emory campus was to establish a full tuition scholarship for their descendants. The idea was received with applause.
Over the subsequent decade, J. P. Godfrey Jr. has continued to campaign for the concept. In the wake of the trustees’ statement of regret and the various festivities honoring the descendants of Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd, the idea seems to be gradually gaining traction. As of this writing, a formal proposal is being developed for a tuition scholarship at Emory for which descendants of the Emory and Oxford enslaved community might compete.
Where do such objects and such moments leave us as we ponder the “family business” of slavery and universities? The photograph of the Candler-Branham reunion, marked by the puzzling presence of Israel and Sally Godfrey, is hardly a sign of serious fracture in the regional edifice of Jim Crow: Israel and Sally and their children were thoroughly excluded by law and custom from nearly all white-dominated institutions in the region, except in the capacity of servants. The memory quilt and the October 2011 rededication of a headstone, as moving as they are, hardly constitute a full measure of restorative justice or reparation. Having said that, many are heartened by ongoing discussions to establish a scholarship at Emory for descendants of enslaved families, perhaps to be named for groundskeeper Robert Hammond, honored, ambiguously, by the tree in the quadrangle, or for Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd, whose former slave quarters remain a sensitive political flashpoint in Oxford.
Taken together, these elements—the restored African American burial ground, the memorial tree, the photograph, the successive headstones to Kitty/Catherine Boyd, the rebuilt slave cottage, the memory quilt, and the as-yet-unrealized promise of a university scholarship—serve as haunting testimony to the unfinished business of slavery in the university and in the United States. They remind us of the curious twists and turns in American apartheid, of the enigmatic slippages and transpositions that characterized the peculiar institution and its successor systems of racialized domination. Above all, they function as a complex kind of looking glass in which conventional distinctions between self and other are simultaneously dissolved and reinforced. Thus the tree dedicated to the Jim Crow–era chief janitors can be viewed by present-day African American staff members as signs of alienation and of pride. Thus, the great image of Bishop King behind the “veil” of the memory quilt can be simultaneously viewed as an implicit condemnation of the racist formation of the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church in 1939 and a celebration of the accomplishments of African Americans within the organization from 1940 until 1968. Thus Darcel Caldwell, Miss Kitty’s fifth-generation descendant, can simultaneously distinguish herself and her family from the dominant narrative of Emory while declaring of her ancestral mother, by means of the anniversary pin, “This is her Emory.” Thus Ms. Perkins can, in tragicomic vein, declare that her enslaved ancestors were Emory’s “family business” even as she claims the institution as her “family business” and then, six months later, learn to her shock that neither the university nor its contractor proxy recognizes the slightest sense of moral responsibility toward her, her kin, or her fellow workers.
Universities, it has long been noted, are mythic, even sacralized, utopian spaces. The university claims to stand outside of conventional space and time, allowing its denizens the luxury of walking among the Eternals. How fitting, then, that these objects of memory remind us, in so many different ways, of eternal truths that we are so eager to forget—of the long histories of oppression, exploitation, and struggles for liberation that underlie our continuing quest for knowledge—in the university and in the world at large. They speak, as Du Bois long ago reminded us, of the enduring veil of “two-ness,” of the uncanny “second sight” born of being simultaneously within and without the temple, as well as the enduring promise that someday our land “shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free.”
This chapter is based on field research conducted in Newton County, Georgia, between 1999 and 2018. Most conversations and interviews were undertaken in 2001, 2002, and 2003.
1. W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903).
2. Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967).
3. Angeline Sims, family members recall, was Native American, probably Creek. Her Native American relatives continued to reside along the Alcovy River into the 1940s; there, they were often visited by their African American kin from Oxford.
4. Eady family papers, in private hands, Oxford, Georgia. Consulted by the author in 2002.
5. Albert Henry Redford, History of the Organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Nashville: A. H. Redford, 1875), 160.
6. George Gilman Smith, The Life and Letters of James Osgood Andrew: Bishop of the Methodist Church South (Nashville: Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1883), 314.
7. For a detailed exploration of white and African American retellings of the stories of Miss Kitty and Bishop Andrew, see Mark Auslander, The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
8. McCord was strongly influenced in these actions by Bishop Warren Candler, former president of Emory College and first chancellor of Emory University. McCord and Candler, committed segregationists, were deeply concerned that the reunification of the Methodist Church would lead to the appointment of Negro bishops in the South and to the desecration of Kitty’s Cottage, which Candler described as “the most interesting building in Georgia.” Mark Auslander, The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 104.
9. Ron Sauder, “Emory Declares Its Regret for Historic Involvement with Slavery,” Emory Report, January 17, 2011. http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_REPORT/stories/2011/01/campus_regret_for_historic_involvement_with_slavery.html.
10. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 263.