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REFLECTIONS: Reconciliation is lesson from ‘riveting’ new book Bishop Woodie W. White, Nov 2, 2011
Bishop Woodie White
By Bishop Woodie W. White UMR Columnist
She was simply known as “Kitty” and later as “Miss Kitty.” Many Methodists remember her as the young, unnamed slave woman at the center of the 1844 General Conference debate concerning Bishop James Osgood Andrew of Georgia, and the accusation that he owned slaves. Methodist church law prohibited the owning of slaves by bishops.
The unresolved controversy resulted in the southern delegations of the church withdrawing and establishing a new denomination in 1845, which they named the Methodist Episcopal Church South, distinguishing it from the Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1784.
This is familiar history for many United Methodists today. Less familiar are the details of the alleged ownership by Bishop Andrew of the young woman known as Miss Kitty. For some this history is still a matter of concern, as I have recently discovered.
In the community of Oxford, Ga., some 30 miles outside of Atlanta (Oxford being the town in which Atlanta’s Emory University was established as Oxford College) the story of Miss Kitty and Bishop Andrew has been kept alive and in a sense has caused unresolved and sometimes unspoken tensions between African American and white citizens. It is no surprise each community has its own narrative of the relationship between Miss Kitty and Bishop James Osgood Andrew.
A riveting new book, The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting A Myth of Race & Finding An American Family, written by Mark Auslander, currently associate professor of anthropology & museum studies, and director of the Museum of Culture and Environment at Central Washington University, in Ellensburg, Wash., looks in depth at the story.
Dr. Auslander was a professor at Oxford College (still a division of Emory), in Oxford, Ga. There he became acquainted with the ongoing controversy of the two narratives related to Miss Kitty and Bishop Andrew. His interest and scholarly inquisitiveness led him to his study of not only this relationship, which had caused the division of a denomination, but also the nature of slavery, especially in Oxford and the surrounding community.
In the course of his work, he began to wonder about how Miss Kitty had spent her adult life. Where were her descendants? The Accidental Slaveowner answers these questions and more.
In February of this year, I was a part of a round table discussion and worship service held one Sunday afternoon in Oxford’s Old Church, a revered historical site that also is important in Georgia Methodist history. It’s close to the cemetery where Bishop James Andrew and Mrs. Catherine (Miss Kitty) Boyd are buried.
Gathered were community leaders as well as members and leaders of the United Methodist Church. They had come to seek healing of a wound still open after more than 150 years. The little church was filled to capacity. Some stood outside, unable even to find standing room in the church.
I was seated next to another member of the round table, a descendant of Bishop Andrew, and only a few feet away sat two great-great-great-granddaughters of Catherine Boyd. Seated close to them was Bishop Mike Watson, current leader of the North Georgia Conference. As I looked about that simple sanctuary I saw many with tears streaming down their cheeks. “Amens” punctuated the service.
I thought about so much that winter afternoon, mostly Miss Kitty, and those enslaved so long ago. But I thought as well about those who held others in bondage. And the desperate need for reconciliation in the world.
You will want to read The Accidental Slaveowner for the rest of the story!
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology.