New book explores the Methodist mystery of Miss Kitty

9/2/2011

By MARK AUSLANDER
       This December will mark the 170th anniversary of one of the most puzzling episodes in the history of Georgia Methodism. On December 4, 1841, the enslaved woman known as Miss Kitty, owned by the prominent Methodist Bishop James Osgood Andrew, was offered her freedom in a special interview conducted by Emory College President Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and Emory Professor George Lane. 
         Miss Kitty was informed that under the bequest through which Bishop Andrew had acquired her, she was at age 19 to be offered the possibility of being sent to the colony of Liberia in West Africa, or remaining in slavery in Georgia, “as free as the laws of the state would permit.” 
       Longstreet and other white commentators report that Kitty chose to remain in slavery and that Bishop Andrew then built a small house for her where she resided in virtual freedom, married a free man of color and had children. This story, white residents of Oxford explained, became a matter of national import three years later, when Bishop Andrew’s ownership of slaves, including Miss Kitty, tore the Methodist Episcopal Church asunder, resulting in a schism that lasted until 1939.  Bishop Andrew, many whites remarked, was “only an accidental slaveholder” who was blameless in the tumultuous events of 1844.
         When I began teaching years ago at Oxford College, the original campus of Emory University, my students and I quickly learned that many aspects of the above standard white account had long been disputed by Oxford’s African American residents. Many of them had heard from their elders that Miss Kitty had been the coerced mistress of Bishop Andrew and had been afforded few options of actual freedom. As one elderly African American woman rhetorically asked my class, “Why do you think Bishop Andrew built that little house for Miss Kitty just behind the big house, away from the other slaves? Just so she could be comfortable?” 
          Many persons of color took great exception to the fact that the old slave quarters, known as “Kitty’s Cottage,” had since the 1930s served as a museum at Salem Campground, dedicated to the Lost Cause and memories of the Confederacy.  In 1994, the Cottage was returned to Oxford and restored as a small heritage museum, but many African Americans in Newton County refused to set foot inside of it.
         “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.”
      Yet if the story of Miss Kitty in many respects divided the white and African American citizens of Oxford, all were united in common interest over the fate of her three children. In 1855, four years after Miss Kitty’s death, the Bishop had left Oxford with her three children, still held as slaves, taking them with him to Summerfield, Alabama. What had become of them and their descendants?
 
      In the course of researching my book on the story of Miss Kitty and Bishop Andrew, I was able to trace the fates of these three children and to determine that Miss Kitty was in fact married to an African American enslaved man, known as Nathan Boyd. Miss Kitty herself appears to have referred to herself as Catherine Boyd. Her eldest son, Alford Boyd, escaped from slavery late in the Civil War, attached himself to the Union Army, and made his way north to Iowa. There he, in time, became a respected ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, staying within the Methodist tradition in which he had been raised. 
      Three years ago, I visited one of the many churches he had pastored, Allen Chapel AME church in Rockford, Illinois. There, to my delight, I was greeted by Mr. Lee Caldwell, Rev. Boyd’s great grandson, a steward of the church. Through him, I met his two wonderful daughters, Darcel and Cynthia Caldwell, with whom I have collaborated in my research.  Thanks to them, I was able to complete my book, “The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family” (University of Georgia Press, October 2011)
       In February of this year, Darcel and Cynthia, Miss Kitty’s great-great-great granddaughters, finally paid a “return” visit to Georgia.  They placed a wreath on the grave of their great-great-great grandfather Nathan Boyd in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery and visited the grave of their ancestral mother, Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd in Oxford’s cemetery. On the morning of Sunday, February 6, the congregation of Grace United Methodist Church in Covington welcomed them “home” with a worship service honoring the Boyds and the other African American foremothers and forefathers of Newton County. Bishop Mike Watson brought the word in the presence of Emory senior officials, faculty and students.
       That afternoon, in Oxford’s Old Church, where so many important events in the history of Georgia Methodism had transpired, hundreds of Emory and Oxford community members welcomed the Caldwell sisters.  Emory President James Wagner read aloud a statement by the Emory Board of Trustees expressing regret for the institution’s historic involvement with slavery and Jim Crow.
       Working with artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, the members of Grace UMC had prepared a large, beautiful quilt, incorporating scores of old family photographs documenting the history of  the African American families of Covington and Oxford. Students and community members read aloud the names of the enslaved persons who had resided in antebellum Oxford, many owned by Emory College faculty and administrators. As they read, the great quilt, hanging from the rafters, was slowly unrolled.
       We then moved on to a talking circle in which descendants of enslaved and slave-owning families linked to Emory’s early history shared their reflections.  Virgil Eady, a direct descendant of Prof. George W.W. Stone of Emory College, spoke with great feeling about the enslaved people owned by Prof. Stone. His labor had, in effect, helped subsidize Emory College during its difficult years after the Civil War, when Prof. Stone quietly paid faculty salaries. 
      I was enormously moved by the resolute words of Callie “Pat” Smith, a representative of the Brown and Thomas families, two of the oldest African American lines in Oxford. She described her difficult experiences as a trailblazer on the Oxford campus, one of the first students of color to attend the school, and recalled that she had promised herself she would never return there.  But now, after all these years and after seeing all this meaningful work of reconciliation, she is proud to proclaim that this is her university.  It was a moment I’ll never forget. 
      The event concluded with a moving benediction by Rev. Sharma Lewis, the first African American woman District Superintendent of the Atlanta-Decatur-Oxford district of the United Methodist Church. All present were struck that the story of Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd, which had so long divided Methodist families in Georgia, had now, at long last, brought together so many old and new friends in fellowship, reflection and celebration.
 
   Mark Auslander, a former faculty member at Oxford College/Emory University, is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA.  His new book, “The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family” (University of Georgia Press, October 2011), may be ordered through: www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/accidental_slaveowner
For more information about the book and the story of Miss Kitty and Bishop Andre,w please see: http://theaccidentalslaveowner.com/
 


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