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BOOK REVIEW: Book unveils story of slave-owning bishop A.V. Huff, Mar 13, 2012
By A.V. Huff Special Contributor
The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family Mark Auslander University of Georgia Press, 2011 383 pages, paperback
Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia is one of the prominent names that students of American Methodist history will recognize. It was the controversy about Andrew’s ownership of African-American slaves in 1844 that resulted in the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church over slavery. This split between north and south (along with the earlier Methodist Protestant schism) lasted until the unification of The Methodist Church in 1940.
While teaching anthropology at Oxford College of Emory University from 1999 to 2001, Mark Auslander, now on the faculty of Central Washington University, began to research the story of Bishop Andrew and his slaves. That quest has resulted in The Accidental Slaveowner, a book that reads much like a detective novel as he put the pieces of evidence together. It gives us new insight into the ways slavery and race relations shaped the history of Methodism in America.
According to the traditional narrative told by the bishop and his fellow churchmen, James Andrew was an “accidental slaveholder.” He became the owner of a young enslaved woman, Kitty, willed to him by a former church member in Augusta, with the understanding that when Kitty reached the age of 19 she would be given the choice of going to Liberia as a free person or remaining in Georgia as a slave. When given the opportunity, Kitty refused to migrate to Liberia and remained with the Andrew family. According to the bishop, Kitty became like one of “his own children.”
Andrew also became the owner of a young male slave from his first wife and later the owner of 14 additional slaves from his second wife. Under Georgia law none of Andrew’s slaves could be emancipated, but he did transfer ownership of the 14 to his second wife by a deed of trust.
At the General Conference in 1844 Andrew’s ownership of slaves became the focus of the dispute over slavery between north and south. Andrew offered to surrender his episcopal office, but the leaders of the southern annual conferences refused to allow that. Instead the General Conference adopted a plan of separation which resulted in the division of the denomination into northern and southern churches. At Kitty’s death she was buried in the Andrew family plot in the Oxford cemetery, and later her house was preserved as a historic site by white Georgia Methodists.
Dr. Auslander’s research tells a very different story from the traditional one. Over the course of his life James Andrew seems to have owned some 42 enslaved persons. Two were inherited from his father in 1830 and later one from his mother. There were Kitty and her three children from her subsequent marriage, and one from the estate of Andrew’s first wife. In 1844 he acquired 14 slaves from his second wife and in 1855 at least 12 from his third wife.
Weeks before the 1844 General Conference, Bishop Andrew for the token amount of $10 dollars deeded to his close friend Augustus B. Longstreet, a fellow Methodist minister and president of Emory College, the 14 slaves acquired from his second wife. Longstreet was a former attorney and a judge, and perhaps drew up the deed to remove the ownership of these slaves from the discussion at the General Conference.
However, the terms were unusual. The deed stipulated that though the slaves were owned by Longstreet, they were for the joint use of Andrew and his wife. Longstreet himself was a former slave owner. Bishop Andrew’s involvement with slavery was much more extensive and complicated than the traditional story allowed.
Intrigued by the story of Kitty, Dr. Auslander also uncovered the identity of her husband, Nathan Boyd, and the history of their children. He eventually discovered the whereabouts of their descendants who had no knowledge of their connection to a crucial event in the history of American Methodism.
In parallel stories the author discusses the history of the preservation of “Kitty’s Cottage,” as it became known, race relations at Emory College and in the town of Oxford, and the fascinating account of the town’s black and white cemeteries. All of this becomes more interesting to Methodists because the town of Oxford (including the original campus of Emory College and Kitty’s Cottage) is one of the historic landmarks of the United Methodist Church.
Dr. Huff, a retired history professor at Furman University, is historian of the South Carolina Conference.