Friday, May 14, 2010

Slavery, Memory and Native American Histories

My essay, "The Other Side of Paradise: Glimpsing Slavery in the University's Utopian Landscapes" was published yesterday in the journal Southern Spaces:

I'm really delighted by the job the journal's staff has done, integrating the essay and the images. Southern Spaces is one of my favorite journals and I'm thrilled to have a piece published in it.

By coincidence, I was spending the day in Oxford, Georgia, the principal locale discussed in the paper. In the morning, I gave a talk on slavery and memory for the Emory University Transforming Community Project's annual seminar, and led the group on a tour of three sites mentioned in the piece, Old Church, Kitty's Cottage and the Oxford City Cemetery.

That afternoon I participated in a meeting with the Oxford Historical Shrine Society, doing some advance planning for what we hope will be the final day of the "Slavery and the University" conference (Sunday, February 6, 2011). Our hope for that day is to hold several events in Oxford/Covington, promoting dialogue among scholars and community members, including descendants of persons who were enslaved in Newton Family and descendants of those who were slaveholders. (In many cases, of course, living persons in Newton County can trace descent to both slaveowners and the enslaved.) The challenge is to develop a respectful and thought-provoking framework for difficult dialogues about accountability and memory work in the local community and in the extended Emory University community.

Over the course of the day I had the opportunity to chat a little with Professor Craig Womack, an Oklahoma Creek-Cherokee Native American literary scholar who is now on the Emory faculty. He noted that the year of Emory College's founding 1836, was also the year of the removal of the Creek nation from this land. He has a fascinating lecture (also on Southern Spaces) on the historical relationship between African Americans and the Creek Confederacy:

Over the course of the day, I found myself wondering more and more how we might best to honor and explore the Native American dimensions of the slavery-at-Emory story. To date, I've certainly given insufficient attention to these dynamics and legacies. We do know that some of the persons enslaved by Emory College faculty in antebellum Oxford were Native Americans: one of these was Cornelius Robinson (himself born around 1836) married to the African-American woman Ellen; both Cornelius and Ellen were owned by Alexander Means, who was for a time the College President. Cornelius is recalled as "full blooded Indian" by some of his descendants, though identified in the 1870 census (Oxford) as "black" and in the 1880 census (Covington) as "mulatto". Cornelius and Ellen were the maternal grand-parents of the College's chief janitor, Henry "Billy" Mitchell. In a more complex sense, how are to think about the fact that the land on which Emory College and the town of Oxford were laid out in the late 1830s had so recently been inhabited by Native Americans, by members of the Creek and Cherokee nations, who histories and presences were largely effaced from local landscapes? The Native American presence, in a rather macabre fashion, is most prominently marked in standard local memory through the name of the stream that meanders through Oxford and Covington, "Dried Indian Creek," said to refer to a local Creek or Cherokee leader who refused to be removed, who was lynched by white settlers, and whose body was tied to a tree to dry in the sun. His story (which I am eager to learn more about) and the process taking hold of the land by white settlers that the story exemplifies, would seem to be intimately related to the symbolic and practical processes through which chattel slavery was imposed on Newton County.

I'm also eager to learn more about the relations (including marriage) between the long-surviving Native American settlements along the Alcovy River area, east of Emory College, and African-Americans in Oxford/Covington, in slavery times and afterwards.

I do not know if any of the Creek or Cherokee removed from the area that is now Oxford, Georgia were themselves owners of African-American slaves; that history may not in fact be recoverable. But the complex inter-meshing of Native American and African American histories, of the stories of enslaved persons and of the recently disenfranchised freedpeople within the Creek confederacy, surely intersects with the histories of slavery at Emory College and in Oxford, in ways that deserve careful thought and investigation.