The Other Side of Paradise: Glimpsing Slavery in the University's Utopian Landscapes

Central Washington University
Published May 13, 2010

Diverse college and university campuses with origins before Emancipation embody a potent paradox. Architecturally and spatially, they present tangible models of idealized utopian spaces, earthly apparitions of the promise of Heaven. Yet these utopian imagined communities rest, at times uneasily, upon under-acknowledged histories of violent coercion, in the form of slavery and slave trades. This essay explores slippages and fissures in the landscape of memory on the university campus and its environs, with particular attention to the town of Oxford, Georgia, the birthplace of Emory University. Memorial spaces associated with institutions of higher learning are sites of potent ideological contestation. At one level, college-related cemeteries may present seemingly coherent narratives of regularized order within an established racial hierarchy. Yet such cemeteries and related memorial practices may also trigger critical modes of consciousness, catalyzing poignant challenges to the established order of things.

Mark Auslander
Central Washington University


Mark Auslander, The white section of the Oxford City Cemetery, Oxford, Georgia, 2000.
Mark Auslander, The white section of the Oxford City Cemetery, Oxford, Georgia, 2000.

My title, "the other side of paradise," is taken from a commentary by Ms. Emogene Williams, one of the matriarchs of the African American community of Newton County, Georgia, as she led me and my students in 2000 across the Oxford Historic Cemetery. She pointed out the gleaming marble headstones marking the final resting places of the Methodist leaders associated with the early years of nearby Emory College. She called our attention to the beautifully maintained lawns on the "white" side of the cemetery, in striking contrast to the long-neglected grave sites in the historically African-American family plots, overgrown with weeds and privet:

So you see, for the white founders the College was a kind of paradise, their vision of what Heaven was supposed to look like. But never forget, there were many others living and toiling in this county, who lived on the other side of paradise. They built this town and this college, going all the way back to slavery times. . . They are just as much as part of this place as anybody else. You just have to learn how to look, learn to see what they left behind, learn to hear what they are still telling you, after all these years.1

This essay is a meditation on Ms. Williams' admonition: how do we learn how to see the traces of the peculiar institution on college and university campuses many generations after Emancipation? How do we learn to hear the echoes of those who labored without acknowledgement or recompense to erect and maintain these academies in their early years?

Photographer unknown, Aerial view of Oxford, c.1925. Courtesy, Emory University Archives. EUPIX - Oxford Series, EUP-0014.

In pondering these questions, I have been especially concerned with the town of Oxford, Georgia, the site of Emory College's original campus from the late 1830s onwards. Yet it is worth noting at the outset that the broader trope to which Ms. Williams alluded has a long and rich history in North America: for centuries, many have wryly juxtaposed the utopian promise embodied by the academy with the hidden underside of coerced, exploited labor upon which such institutions of higher learning frequently rest. Such observations are hardly confined to the South. In her famous poem, "To the University of Cambridge, in New-England" Phillis Wheatley addressed herself, from the position of the enslaved, to those who study the great mysteries of the universe at Harvard College: "Students, to you 'tis giv'n to scan the heights / Above, to traverse the ethereal space / And mark the systems of revolving worlds."2 Yet, while these privileged students occupy an exalted space that approaches the heavens, it is given to the ostensibly subordinate slave to remind them of the temptations of sin that threaten to return them to earthly bounds: "An Ethiop tells you 'tis your greatest foe / Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain/And in immense perdition sinks the soul."3

Oxford, Georgia: The College Campus

Edward Lloyd Thomas (surveyor), Plan of the Town of Oxford, Georgia, 1837. Courtesy of Emory University Archives.
Edward Lloyd Thomas (surveyor), Plan of the Town of Oxford, Georgia, 1837. Courtesy of Emory University Archives.

Six decades after the publication of Wheatley's poem, the white Methodist founders of Emory College in 1836 laid out their terrestrial evocation of the Celestial Kingdom. They designed the newly incorporated town of Oxford, Georgia, to radiate along broad geometrical avenues from the planned campus, itself organized around a stately oval drive. Devoted in large measure to preparing young men for the clergy, the new college aimed to provide its students with disciplined routines and surroundings that would incline its pupils towards thought of Higher Spheres.

From the outset, of course, Emory College was deeply embedded in the structures and contradictions of a slavery-based society. Most of its antebellum officials and many of its faculty owned slaves. Slave labor was essential to the building and functioning of the institution. In contrast to many southern colleges, Emory College did not own slaves, but the administration did rent slaves from time to time.4 The Minutes of the Emory College Board of Trustees for February 9, 1837 record:

Resolved that the Treasurer be instructed to pay the sum of Fifty Dollars for the hire of a negro woman by the name of Sib for 1836 and to give notes for the hire of the negroes ordered to be hired for the present year and the following rates, for Sim: $150, for Charles: $150, for Sib and her children: $75.5

College faculty and officials were active in the theological, legal and ideological legitimation of slavery throughout the antebellum period.6 The College's first president of the board of trustees, Methodist Episcopal Bishop James Osgood Andrew, is to this day remembered in white southern Methodist circles as "our blessed martyred bishop," for suffering "assaults" in 1844 by northern abolitionist bishops for his continuing ownership of slaves in Oxford.7 Bishop Andrew's closest friend, College President Augustus Longstreet, played a central role in the national schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1844-45 over the issue of Andrew's slave-owning. In April 1844 Longstreet executed a complex legal deed with Andrew, formally transferring ownership of most of Andrew's slaves to him, so that Andrew could claim to his northern counterparts that he was not legally their owner. (The strategy failed to sway northern episcopal opinion.) Longstreet then published several impassioned defenses of involuntary servitude, including his 1845 commentary on the scriptural foundations of slavery, Letters on the Epistle of Paul to Philemon and his 1848 Letters from Georgia to Massachusetts, in which he denounced the hypocrisy of northern abolitionists for not attending to the plight of exploited New England mill girls.8

The thirteen major African-American extended families in present day Oxford are able to trace their descendants back to the early enslaved families of Oxford, who labored on or near the college. Mr. J.P. Godfrey, Jr., an African American man in his seventies who served on the Oxford City Council, has often pointed out to college students the campus buildings, including Few Memorial Hall, that his elderly relatives recalled were built by enslaved men. Mr. Godfrey's own grandfather, Israel Godfrey, who was enslaved in Newton County, served in the 1870s as the lead stone mason in the construction of the college chapel.

Photographer unknown, College groundskeeper and chief janitor Henry "Billy' Mitchell with Emory at Oxford students, c. 1940. Collection of J.P. Godfrey, Jr.

Without access to the archives or to oral historical records, a casual visitor to the bucolic campus of "Oxford College of Emory University" (as the original Emory College campus is now known) would remain oblivious to the long history of slavery on and around the institution. The only visible memorial to African Americans on the College grounds is a tree on the central quadrangle in front of Pierce Hall. Planted in 1966 by representatives of the class of 1913 in honor of two of Emory's most celebrated African American employees, the tree is marked at its base by a small plaque:

The member of the class of 1913
in loving appreciation
Dedicate this tree to the memory of
Bob Hammond
1858 to 1923
Billy Mitchell
1886 to 1958
Who together contributed 95 years
Of faithful and efficient service to "Old Emory"
Dedicated June 12, 1966

At his funeral eight years before the tree planting, white eulogists of Henry "Billy" Mitchell (1883-1958), one of the Emory's most important African American employees during the first half of the twentieth century, referred to his family's "long service" to Emory.9

Yet, as had long been openly discussed among Oxford's African American families, this service stretched far back into "slavery times." Mitchell's paternal grandfather was enslaved by Bishop Andrew. His maternal grandparents were enslaved, respectively as valet and maid, by Emory Professor Alexander Means, who briefly served as the college's president. The last time I looked at the tree with Ms. Williams, she sighed and quietly remarked, "How they loved Billy, their best friend they called him. But 1966, you know, that was two years before they even admitted the first black student to study on this campus. They'd happily plant a tree dedicated to us. They just wouldn't let us in the front door."10

The Oxford Historic Cemetery

The ironic status of the academic earthly paradise is especially pronounced one mile from campus in the Oxford Historic Cemetery. Here are buried hundreds of persons, slave and free, closely connected with Emory College from its founding onwards. Over the course of the nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, the dead were increasingly re-settled in pastoral, garden-like settings, often in suburban locales. These carefully sculpted landscapes, replete with foliage, running and still bodies of water, and neo-classical architecture reflected and helped to solidify visual conceptions of Heaven. There is an affinity between the pastoral cemeteries and college campuses of the Victorian era, which similarly offered earthly visions of utopian tranquility as they honored the lives and wisdom of idealized progenitors.

Like many southern graveyards, the Oxford cemetery has long been a political flashpoint. From 1965 until 2000, a wealthy all-white foundation cared for the white half of the graveyard, drawing on public funds covertly funneled to it by the white-majority city council. The city government tended to ignore the historically African American two acres of the cemetery, containing many graves dating back to the 1840s and 1850s. For decades, the white cemetery's lawns were neatly mowed, its marble headstones carefully mapped and lovingly restored. For most local whites the older markers evoke a nostalgic era of antebellum amity among the races. White-led tours of the cemetery often point approvingly to the following marker, one of the few direct allusions to slavery in the cemetery:

In memory of Mary wife of Rev Osborne Embraced Religion August 12, 1812 Died 15 Feb 1856. The morning before her death she called her family, white and black, around her and bade them farewell. From that time as long as she could be understood she continued to praise God.11

After 1965, in contrast to the well-kept white cemetery, the unfunded adjacent African American sections became densely overgrown, many plots inaccessible to living family members. In 1990, in a scandal that still reverberates in the local black community, a clear-cut by a pulpwood merchant destroyed scores of historic African American gravesites and removed venerable trees by which elderly African-Americans had navigated the cemetery.12

A number of white Oxford residents spoke of the carefully tended white cemetery as affording visions of the celestial kingdom. During struggles in the late 1990s to desegregate the cemetery, a local white man confided in me, "I truly don't understand why they are making such a ruckus. Don't they understand all the love and care that has gone into this cemetery? This is where we honor the story of Emory and southern Methodism. It is our Westminster Abbey. It is just our little plot of Heaven."

Ellen Schattschneider, The Kitty Tablet at the base of the Gateway Oak. Oxford City Cemetery, Georgia, 2005.

Significantly, the white cemetery was for over a century bounded off from the historically black cemetery by two great water oaks known as the "gateway oaks." (Some whites half jokingly referred to these as the "Pearly Gates.") At the base of the right oak was located a memorial to the only person of color publicly acknowledged to be buried within the white cemetery. The enslaved woman known as Miss Kitty, (c. 1822–1851) is famous in local white lore for supposedly having declined manumission in 1841 out of loyalty to her white master, Methodist Episcopal Bishop James Osgood Andrew, first president of the Emory College Board of Trustees. The Bishop's ownership of Kitty and approximately twenty-five other slaves was the proximate cause of the national schism in the Methodist church, which lasted from 1844 until 1938.13

At the time of the church's reunification in 1938, Mr. H.W. McCord, a prominent white businessman, arch-segregationist, and bitter opponent of national church re-unification, commissioned an elaborate stone memorial, on which is inscribed the official white version of Kitty's story. Kitty, the text insists, was offered colonization to Liberia but refused. The Bishop then allowed her to live as "free as the laws of Georgia would permit," and built her her own house, in which she resided with her husband, a free black man, with whom she had several children. (This version of events, I should note, is strenuously denied by local African Americans, many of whom assert that Kitty was probably the coerced mistress of Bishop Andrew and that he was the father of her children.) The position of the Kitty memorial at the base of the great gateway oak is suggestive. Not only has Kitty been grafted into the white family tree of Oxford, she is situated, albeit in a transitional and subordinate position, within the heavenly landscape of the white cemetery. Incorporated into the Eternal as a loyal retainer, she shows fidelity beyond death itself.

Ellen Schattschneider, The Kitty Tablet at the base of the Gateway Oak, Oxford, Georgia, 2005.
Ellen Schattschneider, The Kitty Tablet at the base of the Gateway Oak, Oxford, Georgia, 2005.

The white spatial positioning of Kitty is consistent with the most famous white stories about her. She is said to have nursed Bishop Andrew's first wife Amelia on her deathbed and to have kissed Amelia on the lips as she passed away. Several years later, it is said in numerous white authored accounts, Kitty herself died in a pious Christian manner, declaring on her deathbed, "I will soon see Miss Amelia in the Better Land." In the Oxford cemetery, the Kitty marker serves a comparable function, mediating white transitions between the realms of life and the afterlife.

Significantly, McCord in 1939 also moved Kitty's Cottage from Oxford to an all-white segregated Methodist religious campground. There the building became known as the "Kitty Cottage Museum," dedicated to the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy. The building was located at the entrance to the campground, a space that local whites have long spoken of as a vision of Heaven.14

In physical and ideological senses, these Kitty substitutes served to greet whites entering into sacred spaces that evoke the Celestial Kingdom. Just as a relatively privileged house slave once stood as a welcoming presence at the door of the Big House she serves (through the medium of the memorial) to welcome whites back to their Eternal Home. In turn, just as field slaves were located in outlying cabins, so other people of color are buried in the peripheral fields well outside of the Gateway Oaks of the cemetery. In these respects, the entire cemetery — and the celestial topography it evokes—may be regarded as an enduring projection of the idealized white vision of the social structure of the Antebellum plantation.

Counter-Narratives in the Oxford Cemetery

Thus far our discussion has been consistent with the model sketched out by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss in their classic anthropological study, Primitive Classification (1963): the basic principles of social organization structure visions of the cosmos as well as how those cosmological schemes are realized in lived social space. Yet, in practice the picture is more complex. The objectification of these schemes in tangible concrete form also puts these ideological systems potentially at risk, or at least subject to critical interrogation.

Some of these long-term "hidden transcripts" have come into visibility over the past decade. In 2000, largely inspired by conversations with Ms. Williams and Mr. Godfrey, my students at Oxford College partnered with local African American and white residents to restore the historically black sections of the cemetery. On our first day of work, we uncovered grave markers in the oldest section of the African American area of the cemetery, just across from the Kitty monument. The first headstone marked the grave of Louisa Means, a former slave, who had been purchased by G.W.W. Stone, Sr., on the occasion of his daughter Tudie's birth in 1841. An unpublished white memoir records that Mrs. Means worked her entire adult life for the white Stones as their "head nurse, washwoman and mammy." Before emancipation she married local blacksmith Samuel Means (who was enslaved by Emory Professor and College President Alexander Means), a union that her former owners, the white Stone family, came to strongly disapprove of. Her 1882 headstone, erected by the adult children of G.W.W. Stone, Sr., is inscribed on its east side, "Louisa. Faithful servant of G.W.W. Stone, Professor of Mathematics. Oxford College." No mention, significantly, is made of her married name; instead she is referred to solely by the name she had in slavery and by which she was known by the white family for the remainder of her life.

Yet, as some African American residents wryly note, the white Stones did not have the final word in this story. On the west side of the headstone is inscribed in a different, less professional hand the words, "Louisa Means." According to oral tradition, her full name was surreptitiously inscribed by her own kin sometime after the white family had erected the headstone. Two sides of her identity, slave and free, unmarried and married, remain juxtaposed on the stone.15

As we cleared privet the following weekend we uncovered the elaborate carved grave marker of one of the black community's founding figures, Israel Godfrey, who had lived as a slave the first seventeen years of his life, and who had, post-emancipation, worked as the head stone mason in the construction of the Emory College Chapel. The Godfrey monument is carved in the form of an open Bible. Israel's grandson, J. P Godfrey, Jr., remarked,

Mark Auslander, Israel Godfrey Marker in form of an open Bible, Oxford City Cemetery, Oxford, Georgia, 2000.
Mark Auslander, Israel Godfrey Marker in form of an open Bible, Oxford City Cemetery, Oxford, Georgia, 2000.
Just look at this marker. And look over there at that [pointing over to the Kitty marker] . . . I have lost count trying to reckon all the lies inscribed on that Kitty tablet. And the way some of our neighbors go on and on about it, quoting it at every possible occasion, you'd think it was one of the tablets Moses himself brought down from Mount Sinai.

He ran his fingers along the weathered top of his grandfather's memorial, on the pages of the open stone Bible:

My grandfather was born a slave and kept his Christian faith all his life. If some people are looking for the Rock of Ages, it wouldn't hurt them to come on over here to this side of the cemetery and look at this particular Good Book right now. That book is still open for all to see, after all those years in the wilderness.

He smiled ruefully, "But somehow, I don't think they'll be taking that walk anytime soon!"

As interracial groups of students and Oxford residents labored in the cemetery, more white families came to support efforts to excavate the history of slavery at the College. The descendants of Professor Stone, for example, generously shared a manuscript that revealed, among other things, that the core area of the "historically white" cemetery was in fact built upon land occupied up until the Civil War by an African American church in which enslaved African Americans worshipped for two decades. The church building was gifted to the black community in the late 1840s by the Emory College Board of Trustees. At the Civil War's end, the white leaders of the town took the building down so that the white cemetery could expand.

The news of this historical discovery had an electrifying effect among local families of color. As one respected Baptist Deacon remarked,

All these years they told us this was the 'Historic Cemetery,' which meant the White Cemetery. But now we find out this was black land. More than that, consecrated land, which they just took from us when it suited them. I don't know what to think, but one thing I do think, some things have got to change in this town, and change now.

In the months that followed the enduring segregation of the cemetery, as well as continued white efforts to memorialize Kitty in architectural form, became increasingly bitter flashpoints in the town. Struggles to integrate the cemetery, to restore its historically African American sections and to prevent schoolchildren's tours of the slave quarters known as "Kitty's Cottage," helped catalyze a series of far reaching political struggles, leading to voter registration drives, the breaking of the color bar in the town's police force and campaigns against environmental racism. A space that had once been held up as an earthly instantiation of Heaven on earth came to function as an important medium of social remapping that proved "good to think" with about a wide range of social and cultural contradictions. In W.E.B. DuBois' terms, the cemetery and the college campus to which it was so intimately connected had long functioned as evocative sites of double consciousness, foregrounding the ways in which persons of color were simultaneously included in and excluded from the promise of redemption. Yet, in time, this charged space also made possible the progressive articulation of double consciousness as an explicit predicament, helping to trigger transformative social action.

Slavery in Heaven: Summerfield, Alabama

Ellen Schattschneider, Bishop Andrew memorial obelisk in the Andrew family plot (foreground) and the Kitty Tablet at the base of the Gateway Oak (background), Oxford, Georgia, 2005.
Ellen Schattschneider, Bishop Andrew memorial obelisk in the Andrew family plot (foreground) and the Kitty Tablet at the base of the Gateway Oak (background), Oxford, Georgia, 2005.

The catalyzing power of concretized double consciousness is illustrated even more potently by another segregated cemetery, in another southern Methodist college town. 250 miles west of Oxford lies Summerfield, Alabama, a little north of Selma. In 1854 Bishop James Osgood Andrew moved to this beautiful small community with his slaves, including the enslaved children of Miss Kitty, who had died in 1851. In Summerfield, Bishop Andrew served on the board of the town's Methodist college, the Centenary Institute, just as he had served on the Emory College board in Oxford. He worshipped regularly at Summerfield Methodist Church, an institution that like the Old Oxford Methodist Church numbered among its congregants many enslaved persons.

No traces of the Centenary Institute survive in today's Summerfield, other than its weathered and worn front steps, which can be just glimpsed along the curving road that meanders through the town. When I visited Summerfield in 2008 in search of evidence of what became of Kitty's children and the other persons enslaved by Bishop Andrew, I was directed by white residents to the venerable Childers Chapel Cemetery, in which are buried many of the white citizens who played a leading role in the College and the town over the course of the nineteenth century. As in Oxford, the carefully maintained white cemetery is adjacent to a historically African-American cemetery, a burial ground that is structurally "invisible" to most of its white neighbors.

Like the Oxford City Cemetery, Childers Chapel Cemetery to this day subtly evokes enduring, albeit subtle, racial divisions in how the past is recalled, affording starkly opposing visions of the afterlife. Consider, for example, the variable reactions to the large stone monument that visually dominates the center of the cemetery. Dedicated to Mrs. Carrie M. Cleveland, the memorial consists of a large pillar on which are inscribed the words, "Carrie Maude Pinson, Wife of Morgan S. Cleveland, was born Sept, 5, 1834 and died May 10, 1860. " Atop the base is carved a statue of a beautiful young woman dressed in a long robe, her flowing hair coursing down to the shrouded urn on which her head rests.

Mark Auslander, Memorial statue to Carrie Maude Pinson Cleveland (1834-1860) in Childers Chapel Cemetery, Summerfield, Alabama, 2008.

Mark Auslander, Memorial statue to Carrie Maude Pinson Cleveland (1834-1860) in Childers Chapel Cemetery, Summerfield, Alabama, 2008.

In 1860, the year Carrie died, her husband Morgan, age twenty-five, owned forty-three slaves; she left behind a two-year-old daughter, and, local whites recall, a deeply distraught husband. In classic mid-Victorian style, recalling the influences of the Greek Revival, Mrs. Cleveland slumbers for eternity upon a shrouded urn, a standard Victorian signifier of mourning. Several white residents of Summerfield note that the statue exemplifies the genteel romanticism of the old South. It serves, they explain, as a touching celebration of a husband's deep love for his beautiful young wife and typifies the abiding Christian faith of the era. "You can see how much he loved her," Lucy Jameson, an older white woman told me, adding, "In those days, you know, death wasn't really something to be feared. It was a long slumber, a just reward for the virtuous; that's how they saw it, back then." She added (a little mischievously for the benefit of the professor conversing with her), "You know, that's what they taught at the College in those days. Not like what they teach in, ah, some schools nowadays."

Rebecca Anders, another white woman in her seventies, remarked, "She is just the most beautiful angel, isn't she? She looks out over all of us, we're all her family here in Summerfield, really. They do say that angels watch over us, don't they?" Another white woman added, "It is not given to us to know everything that awaits us, but when I look at that statue, resting in this beautiful place, I do feel, well, that we are given a glimpse of our just reward. That's what a college town was, after all, a little glimpse of Heaven."

Yet, as several elderly African Americans have told me, the Springfield black community has long interpreted the statue in a rather different way. They insist that the sculptor depicted Mrs. Cleveland with a long bull whip draped over her, its handle near her hand, the better to beat her slaves with. Alicia Fenton, an elderly African American woman about ten years old than Lucy and Rebecca, noted that from her pedestal "the old mistress" looks over the iron wrought fence into the old slave cemetery behind the white cemetery. "Even in death, white people still wanted to intimidate black folks, " she sighed. The humiliation inflicted by the statue, she recalls, deepened each time a black funeral was held; mourners would have to carry the casket directly through the white cemetery under the old mistress' ever-ready whip. Mrs. Smithson specifically notes that "the way I see it, that old mistress is still looking over the slave's burying ground, keeping an eye over them." Mrs. Fenton sighed in agreement. "They really believed, still do I think, that they could bring all their slaves to heaven with them. Just like Pharaoh in the days of old! " Mrs. Smithson nodded emphatically, "Now I ask you, is that Christian?"

Having spent a good deal of time perusing the statue up close, it seems to me that the whip is a creative "(re)reading" of the carved cloth that adorns the statue. The cord dropping down from the urn's shroud is read as the handle of the whip; the folds in the figure's robes are seen as a whip cord that encircles the figure. This reading is presumably aided by the fact that few African-Americans spent much time contemplating the statue in close proximity; so far as I can tell, it was only glanced at during funerals. Black pallbearers passed directly by it going to the burial site, as they prepared to lift a casket over the rear iron fence for easier access to the black burial ground. Most black mourners did not enter into the white cemetery, but only saw the statue from afar, outside of the iron fence. Since the statue faces away from the road, and since the woods behind the cemetery are thickly overgrown, the only way nowadays to see the front of the statue would be to enter into the actual confines of the white cemetery. To this day this is not a space which many local African-Americans feel comfortable entering. The older reading of the statue in the local black community endures.

Mrs. Fenton describes with pride the more recent all-black Summerfield cemetery (established around 1890), located on the slope of a beautiful hill three miles north of the white cemetery:

You can understand why as soon as we got the land up the hill we started burying our people up there. That's our land, given to the community by a strong black woman. No white mistress with a whip carved in stone looking over them up there! Every one of those headstones is resting on our land.

She and her sisters note proudly that soon after the Civil War, Springfield blacks broke from the white dominated Summerfield Methodist church and established an African Methodist Episcopal congregation. "We might not have been welcome at Centenary," her sister Violet remarks with a laugh, "but we've been sending our children to AME colleges ever since!" Once again, a college town's segregated cemetery has made painfully apparent the incomplete promise of education under Jim Crow. Once again a scarred final resting place has inspired an independent course of action.

Conclusion: Double Consciousness and the College Campus

In recent years more and more institutions of higher learning east of the Mississippi, North and South, have been exploring their historical entanglements with the Atlantic slave trade and the operations of slavery. Important work has been done on the pro and anti-slavery ideological functions of antebellum colleges, on the sources of early college bequests, on slave ownership by colleges, on the labor by enslaved persons in building and maintaining campus structures, and the educational and labor trajectories of new freedpeople at institutions where they and their fore-parents had worked in involuntary servitude.16

University files, probate records, deeds, bills of sale, correspondence, and antebellum textbooks are being read in original and insightful ways. As we pursue this vital research in the archives, we must remain sensitive to Ms. Williams' admonition to observe the traces of hidden histories, of slavery and anti-slavery struggles, embedded in the material architecture and landscapes of present-day colleges and their environs. We must learn to see anew in the face of ideological repression that for generations has rendered nearly invisible the legacies of enslavement and that has cast the campus as an earthly anticipation of Heaven. In this work we need to remain especially sensitive to charged sites on the land where the living and the dead intersect, at times uneasily, to memorial trees and monuments, to headstone and plaques, to the places that call forth quiet stories of those who have passed on.

In these acts of witnessing, let us honor the fact that in slavery and freedom many African-Americans who were long excluded from these virtual enactments of the Afterlife did not necessarily reject the promise that these spaces embodied. Like Phillis Wheatley they have rejoiced in the calling to "scan the heights above" and "to traverse the ethereal space," even as they have denounced efforts to limit these aspiration to a single race or gender. It is worth noting that Ms. Williams, who pointedly reminded us that so many persons of color were relegated to "the other side of paradise," is a retired educator and a passionate advocate of higher education. She is devoted to Oxford College, even as she remains a pointed critic of much of its history during slavery times and Jim Crow. Her daughter, one of the first African-Americans to matriculate at Oxford, holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from Emory University. Ms. Williams has herself lectured to Emory students and faculty on numerous occasions.

Let us honor as well the strategies through which persons of color, while formally excluded from matriculating on segregated "white" campuses, often managed to educate themselves in the face of extraordinary odds, even while working at these institutions under conditions not entirely of their own choosing. Significantly, Mr. Godfrey recalls that during 1955–56, when forced to leave Clark University for a year due to his father's illness, he was tacitly allowed by the Oxford College Dean to audit classes on the still-segregated Oxford campus—while technically employed as a "janitor"—so as not to fall behind in his studies.

Let us remain attentive to the coercive underside of universities' utopian claims, even as we honor the promise immanent in the extraordinary ritual space of every campus—the promise long ago penned by Phillis Wheatley, that all may someday, in this lifetime and on this terrestrial plane, look Heavenwards to "mark the systems of revolving worlds."

About the Author

Mark Auslander is currently an assistant professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, where he directs the interdisciplinary MA program in cultural production. His research interests include ritual, art, memory, cultural heritage, kinship and the family in southern Africa and in the US South.


Ethnographic and archival research on slavery and memory in Newton County, Georgia was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Program on Working Families, through the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) at Emory University; subsequent research in Georgia and Alabama has been supported by the Norman Research Fund at Brandeis University. In crafting this essay I have benefited from the thoughtful insights of many friends and colleagues, including Susan Ashmore, Randall Burkett, Ginger Cain, Allan Cattier, J.P. Godfrey Jr., Leslie Harris, Carole Meyers, Ellen Schattschneider, Bradd Shore, Thee Smith, Allen Tullos, Avis Williams and Emogene Williams. With the exception of J.P. Godfrey Jr. and Emogene Williams, who have consented to being identified, all other quoted persons are identified through pseudonyms.

  • 1. Emogene Williams, interview with Mark Auslander, Oxford, Georgia, 4 February 2000.
  • 2. Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London, 1773.
  • 3. Ibid, 15.
  • 4. On slave ownership by antebellum Virginia colleges see Jennifer Oast, "Forgotten Masters: Institutional Slavery in Virginia, 1680–1860." Unpublished PhD Dissertation, College of William and Mary, 2009.
  • 5. Emory College Board of Trustees for February 9, 1837. Emory University Archives.
  • 6. On the early history of slavery at Emory College see Mark Auslander, The Myth of Kitty: Paradoxes of Blood, Law and Slavery in a Georgia Community, Working Paper #2, Sloan Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Emory University, 2001 and Mark Auslander, "Dreams Deferred: African-Americans in the History of 'Old Emory.'" Where Courageous Inquiry Leads: Studies in the Emerging Life of Emory University (co-edited by Gary Hauk and Sally Wolff King) University of Georgia Press, 2011 (in press).
  • 7. The standard source on Bishop Andrew's ownership of slaves is usually taken to be George Smith, Life and Letters of James Osgood Andrew. Nashville, Tenn. 1882. I explore alternate accounts of Andrew's relationship with slavery in Auslander 2001.
  • 8. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Letters on the Epistle of Paul to Philemon: Or, the Connection of Apostolical Christianity with Slavery. Charleston, South Carolina: B. Jenkins, 1845; Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, A Voice from the South: Comprising Letters from Georgia to Massachusetts, and to the Southern States: With an Appendix Containing an Article from the Charleston Mercury on the Wilmot Proviso. Baltimore: Western Continent Press, 1847.
  • 9. The 1943 Emory-at-Oxford College yearbook was dedicated to Henry "Billy" Mitchell. At his 1958 funeral, he was eulogized by College Dean Virgil Eady, who stated, "Billy Mitchell's friends included people in many stations of life—Congressmen, US Senators, Methodist Bishops, great and influential business and professional men and women." Mitchell family lore, supported by US census records, asserts that Henry Mitchell was in fact born in 1883, not 1886.
  • 10. Emogene Williams, Interview with Mark Auslander, Oxford, Georgia 13 June 2003.
  • 11. Local African Americans are less inclined to read this headstone as signifying antebellum amity. As Ms. Williams remarks, "Well, that just tells you what 'family' meant in those days; anybody working together in the same household counted as family, even if half the 'family' owned the other half!" (Emogene Williams, Interview with Mark Auslander, Oxford, Georgia, 13 June 2003.)
  • 12. On the consequences of this clear cut see Mark Auslander, "Going by the Trees: Death and Regeneration in Georgia's Haunted Landscapes." "Ancient Mysteries, Modern Secrets," 2009. (Electronic Antiquity)
  • 13. On the history of the Kitty narrative see Auslander 2001.
  • 14. Kitty's Cottage was returned to the city of Oxford in 1994. It was lovingly restored by the nearly all white local historical society. To this day, however, very few Oxford African Americans have been willing to enter the structure, which they associated with a "white-washed" version of history. See Auslander 2001.
  • 15. In an unpublished account, Professor Stone's son G.W.W. Stone Jr. recalls that Louisa was purchased as a "young colored woman" by G.W.W. Stone Sr., when his daughter Tudie was born in April 1841. "She became our head nurse-washwoman and mammy. We all thought she was one of the best niggers [sic] ever born. And we think so yet. She couldn't have loved her own children any more than she did us. And we loved her just like she was kin to us. She married a man named Sam Means. He was a blacksmith and behaved himself until after the surrender. Then he was unkind to Louise. He became too free. When she died in 1882 Father's children put a tombstone over her grave." (G.W.W. Stone, Jr. [1939])
  • 16. On Brown University and the Atlantic slave trade see the report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice (2006). Recent work on slavery at William and Mary includes Brophy 2008, Myers 2008, Oast 2009.

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