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Remembrance in the Cemetery: In Search of “The Accidental Slaveowner”

In the account below Central Washington University anthropologist Mark Auslander describes why he wrote The Accidental Slaveholder, which describes the curious ways in which the legacy of slavery extend into the contemporary era.  

I grew up in Washington D.C. in a secular Jewish family in a predominantly white neighborhood, with only a limited sense of the richness and complexity of African American D.C. It took me a long time to find my way back, as it were, to my hometown.

In graduate school at the University of Chicago, I was trained as an Africanist anthropologist, and spent over two years doing ethnographic fieldwork in a village of the Ngoni people of eastern Zambia. My studies concentrated on ritual performance and changing popular perceptions of landscape amidst neoliberal economic conditions. Among other things, I worked extensively on the sacred symbolism of trees and burial grounds. Years later, teaching in rural Georgia, I found myself increasingly drawn to local African American cemeteries, which reminded me, often in ways I could not quite articulate, of comparable locales in central and southern Africa.

One burial ground in particular fascinated me. The segregated cemetery of Oxford, Georgia-- the birthplace of Emory University--had long been a political flashpoint. Since 1965, the town’s white-dominated city council had channeled fees paid by bereaved African American families to an all-white foundation, which exclusively maintained the white half of cemetery. Gradually, the African American ceremony became overgrown and its graves, many dating back to the time of slavery, became inaccessible to black families.  

In the spring of 2000, my students and I at Emory University’s Oxford College partnered with local African American congregations to restore the historic African American cemetery, document previously unmarked graves, and campaign for the cemetery’s desegregation. By 2001, the city and the cemetery foundation agreed to provide perpetual care for all burial plots in the entire cemetery,

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