Symposium to offer new perspectives on Emory's history of slavery and dispossession

By Kelundra Smith | Emory Report | Sept. 1, 2021

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Cynthia Martin (left) and Darcel Caldwell are the great-great-great granddaughters of Catherine Andrew Boyd. “Emory could set the standard in terms of universities acknowledging their participation in slavery,” Cynthia Martin says.

Who was Catherine Andrew “Miss Kitty” Boyd? Throughout much of Emory University’s history, she has been described as loyal and dutiful — the favored slave of Bishop James O. Andrew, a Methodist minister and chair of the Emory College board of trustees in 1844. Boyd lived in a small house known as “Kitty’s Cottage,” married, had three children and is the only known African American buried in the white section of Oxford Cemetery. However, that alleged favoritism came with consequences and in the antebellum South she could never know freedom. 

Like many universities throughout the country, Emory has an entangled past with the institution of slavery. Though there is no record that the university ever owned slaves, many of the founding faculty, donors and trustees, such as Bishop Andrew, did. The university also has records of renting enslaved people to work on campus.

The entire Emory University community is invited to learn more about the school’s history with slavery and Native American land dispossession — and how that history impacts the present — at the upcoming symposium, “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession,” set for Sept. 29-Oct. 1 on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses.

During the three-day symposium, faculty, staff and students as well as nationally renowned scholars and community members will come together for panels, performances, art installations and other presentations in the spirit that shared history will pave a way forward.

“It’s important for students to understand the place, because our history has impacted the community and we’re not separate,” says Megan Pendleton, director of diversity and inclusion at Oxford College and a member of the symposium steering committee. “We’ve seen a ton of activism on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses over the past few years. Students are engaged, energized and excited about interrogating this place and the systems and structures that have existed to subjugate others — and the ones that are still in place.”

Interrogating systems is how Mark Auslander, author of “The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race & Finding an American Family” and former faculty member at Emory College and Oxford College, uncovered the story of “Miss Kitty” and Emory’s history with slavery.

In 1999, Auslander and one of his classes at Oxford College visited Oxford Cemetery and noticed that the Black section and the white section were not equitably maintained even though Black families had been giving money and asking for restoration for a long time. That observation led to years of speaking to families in Oxford and Covington about the complicated history that led to the present-day issue.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Auslander will present his findings from 20 years ago along with information about the five plantations that became the entire Emory campus at the upcoming symposium. Auslander believes that many people in the North and the South have a hard time understanding the true horror of slavery and how inequities in health care, education, housing and voting rights connect to the issue.

“We have to look unflinchingly at the human cost of enslavement,” says Auslander, who is a visiting scholar at Brandeis University and visiting faculty member at Boston University and at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I am going to tell a story at the plenary about families that were torn apart and sold on the courthouse steps in Covington and Decatur. When you can name individuals, it has a different impact… That fantasy that it wasn’t so bad, that everyone was a part of the same family, that there was a hierarchy that everyone was subjected to, is a narrative we can’t afford to be seduced by.”

For Cynthia Martin, the past is more than just conjecture — Boyd was her great-great-great grandmother. Growing up, Martin says that she knew that she had ancestors in Georgia but was unaware of the ties to Emory University until Auslander contacted her and her sister, Darcel, as a part of his research.

In the years since, she has dug deeper into her family history as a way of “completing herself and gaining a better understanding of the struggles her ancestors endured to ensure the safety of their families.” Her hope is that the symposium will lead to acknowledgment and reconciliation for African Americans in the Oxford community.

“Emory could set the standard in terms of universities acknowledging their participation in slavery,” says Martin, who lives outside of Philadelphia. “You have a large population in the Oxford-Covington area who can trace their family history back to slavery and the sacrifices their ancestors had to make and the opportunities they did not have because they were slaves.”

Rev. Avis Williams is one of those descendants. Williams earned her associate’s degree from Oxford College in 1978, bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Emory College in 1980 and master of divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2008. Her great-great-great grandfather, Toney Baker, is believed to have been enslaved by one of Emory’s early trustees.

Williams is a minister at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Covington, the same place where Baker preached for 46 years. Williams grew up in Newton County but for most of her friends going to college at Oxford or Emory seemed out of reach. Her hope is that renewed interest in excavating Emory’s history will remove those barriers for young people in the area today.

"Our young people need to know about the whole struggle so that they are armed with knowledge as they face prejudice and discrimination,” Williams says. “If we’re going to be one of the great universities and compete with Harvard, Stanford or MIT, or Spelman and Morehouse, we have to make sure it’s an equal opportunity place for everybody.”

Registration is now open for the symposium and all events are free to attend.