At a groundbreaking conference held at Emory University last week, titled Slavery and the University: History and Legacies, several presenters bemoaned the dearth of effective memorials recognizing the enslaved persons who helped build American universities. When the conference concluded on Sunday, a towering fabric memorial was unfurled in Oxford, the birthplace of Emory College. The site-specific installation by Atlanta artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier honors Catherine “Miss Kitty” Andrew Boyd, the legendary enslaved seamstress owned by Methodist Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of Emory’s board of trustees.
The mixed media work is the result of Linnemeier’s collaboration with anthropologist Mark Auslander and members of the Oxford community. An emblem of human unity, it was the highlight of a “talking circle” in Oxford’s antebellum Old Church on Sunday, the conference’s culminating event which was open to the public. In the same building where the college’s pioneering students and Miss Kitty worshiped, more than 250 people gathered to address slavery and its traumatic aftermath. Descendants of both slaves and slave owners, Emory representatives and alumnae, and lifelong Oxford residents shared deeply felt stories that moved toward reconciliation. (For an Emory University video of the event, click here.)
“The job of art when we’re dealing with this pain is not to speak for anybody else but to open the space for honest dialogue,” Auslander, a Brandeis University professor and one of the conference organizers, said in a telephone interview. “A community-based art project is what made the most sense. This includes ordinary people who are not themselves artists but who are bearers of memory.”
Titled Unraveling Miss Kitty’s Cloak, Linnemeier’s installation memorializes not only Miss Kitty but also 69 other enslaved persons in antebellum Oxford and the deceased ancestors of community members who participated in the project. Names of the slaves were read aloud as the 30-foot work was unfolded, cascading from the ceiling to stretch across the historic sanctuary stage.
Newton County residents from ages nine to 80 years helped stitch or embellish the work while others donated family photographs or funeral programs that were scanned onto fabric.
Linnemeier, a self-described “visual mythologist,” re-imagines historical incidents using photography, painting, oral histories, and primary source documents to tell the stories of people in communities. She designed the multicolored work as a variation of a Yoruban egungun masquerade costume, a quilted work worn during a ceremony that links the living and the dead.
“I am an egungun priestess,” she told the crowd on Sunday. “My charge is go into communities to help them honor their ancestors.”
Auslander, who previously served on the faculty at Oxford College, is largely responsible for the research unearthing Emory’s early relationship with slavery. The university recently issued a statement of regret acknowledging its “entwinement with the institution of slavery,” which Emory President James Wagner read at the Oxford gathering.
The story of Miss Kitty and her complex relationship with her owner, one of the most hotly debated narratives in Oxford history, holds national significance because Andrew’s ownership of slaves caused the 1844 schism in the Methodist Episcopal Church that presaged the Civil War. The narrative is the subject of Auslander’s forthcoming book, The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family (University of Georgia Press, Fall 2011).
Miss Kitty “is a symbol of so many people who are not known,” said Miss Kitty’s great-great-great granddaughter Darcel Caldwell, who traveled from her Pennsylvania home to attend the ceremony with her sister Cynthia Caldwell. Although no image of Miss Kitty has survived, she is represented in the work by scanned photographs of her eldest son and his wife.
Narratives of the community came alive as people shared personal traumas and triumphs. Avis Williams, an African American minister and Emory alumna, recounted how her Newton County elementary school was “torched” when integration was announced. Callie “Pat” Smith described the entrepreneurial efforts of her ancestors who laundered the shirts of Emory students. Anesthesiologist Jim Scott, a descendant of slaves who co-chairs the president’s commission on race and ethnicity at Emory, prayed for forgiveness for college founder John Emory. Virgil Eady spoke of his ancestor, Emory professor George Stone, who inherited 21 slaves.
Intended as a one-day installation, Unraveling Miss Kitty’s Cloak will remain on view at Old Church for an undetermined time before moving to Grace United Methodist Church in Covington.
Memorials are not intended to create permanence, Julian Bonder, an architecture professor at Roger Williams University, said during the conference’s panel discussion on “universities and memorialization.” His Cambridge-based design firm focuses on projects dealing with public space, trauma, and memory.
“I hope the visitor will think of the object not as an object but as a frame to think about their own experience,” Bonder said. “We cannot represent the experience of those who suffered. We offer the experience of a witness….Lynn is inviting the community to participate.”