Review: The Accidental Slaveholder
Mark Auslander. The Accidental Slaveholder: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011. 383 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-4042-5.
American Methodists split into regional denominations following the 1844 General Conference of the Methodist Church held in New York City. The event that precipitated the split was a resolution passed by antislavery Methodists requesting Bishop James Osgood Andrew of Georgia to suspend the activities of his office until he had remedied himself of his association with slavery. Bishop Andrew was a slaveowner, having inherited or acquired without purchase more than a dozen slaves from family members, former parishioners, and, most notably, his wives. For most Methodists in the South the resolution was a grave insult to the man and the region and the final straw which necessitated the creation of a separate, regional denomination. In particular, since the Bishop had acquired his slaves through “no fault of his own,” the resolution dishonored an honorable man. It thereby demonstrated the radical and unreasonable attitudes of northern Methodists concerning the role of slavery within the church. In making this argument, southerners particularly focused on the Bishop’s ownership of Kitty, a young, biracial woman, who he claimed had been willed to him by a former parishioner with the instruction to allow her to either emigrate to Liberia or remain his slave in as free a condition allowed by the laws of Georgia. According to accounts given by Andrew, biographers friendly to him, and his past and contemporary admirers, the bishop not only lived up to the parishioner’s request but treated Kitty as a family member, so much so, that she preferred to remain a slave rather than live free in Africa.
According to author Mark Auslander, for more than a century the story of Kitty (more appropriately known as Catherine Boyd) has meant many things to many Methodists, white southerners, and, most importantly, to the residents of Oxford, Georgia, where the bishop and Kitty resided during the time of the Methodist split. For these groups, this story has served as proof of the bishop’s personal honor, a defense of slavery as a benevolent institution, an idealized model for race relations, and the basis for an historic house museum in the cottage that the bishop had built for Kitty to live in behind his home.
In contrast to the interpretations white southerners have given to the history of Bishop Andrew and Kitty, the African American community of Oxford has long maintained an alternative version of this story. Kitty was the Bishop’s forced mistress, many black residents assert, that he shamefully housed nearby to facilitate his loathsome abuse of his enslaved lover. Accordingly, the white community’s warm embrace and public promotion of their version of the story via the restoration of “Kitty’s Cottage” and erection of cemetery makers has stirred deep emotions in the African American community. As Auslander argues, African Americans are frustrated that whites are still attempting to defend slavery, saddened that Kitty’s victimization is denied, and angry that their story has been ignored or silenced.
The disparity between the white and black interpretations of Bishop Andrew and Kitty’s relationship is the focus of Mark Auslander’s analysis in The Accidental Slaveholder. Auslander, a professor of anthropology, uses an interdisciplinary approach to try to explain how such competing myths can emerge and what their promulgation tells us about the communities in which these mythical constructs exist. He methodically analyzes published and recorded versions of the story to determine how the existing narratives developed through time, while also documenting the evolution of “Kitty’s Cottage” as an historic site. Additionally, Auslander traces the genealogy of the Boyd family into the modern era, draws upon his extensive oral history interviews to thoughtfully portray Oxford’s African American community, and describes how service-learning projects conducted by his students directly benefited Oxford and his research. The resulting book functions like a cross between Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name (2004) and James Loewen’s Lies Across America (1999). As with Tyson, Auslander’s book is a deeply personal reflection about his direct experience with a community’s struggle over its racially charged past. Simultaneously, his focus on public history sites and the mythological characteristics informing the public’s interpretation of them is strikingly similar to Loewen’s analysis of the often inaccurate or contorted representation of the nation’s past.
Ultimately, Auslander’s work is an unusual but interesting local history featuring a central story that has regional importance. Its greatest contribution is its clear portrayal of the lingering debates over slavery, the Civil War, and the meaning of freedom that regularly occur at the local level where community and family identity are quite literally a very public and personal matter. Academic and general readers who are interested in the history of slavery, southern religious history, anthropology, genealogy, and public or local history will likely find this book to be useful and interesting reading.