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Filmmaker Uncovers Her Family’s Shocking Slave-Trading History

Now Katrina Browne urges Americans to explore their own roots.
 
 
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The following content originally appeared on Democracy Now!: 

As we continue our conversation on slavery, we are joined by a woman who uncovered that her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Katrina Browne documented her roots in the film, "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North," which revealed how her family, based in Rhode Island, was once the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. After the film aired on PBS in 2008, Browne went on to found the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery. We speak to Browne and Craig Steven Wilder, author of the new book, " Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our conversation on slavery, we’re joined by a woman who uncovered that her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Katrina Browne is with us. She documented her roots in the film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.

KATRINA BROWNE: One day my grandmother traced back. I was in seminary when I got a booklet in the mail that she wrote for all her grandchildren. She shared our family history—all the happy days. She also explained that the first DeWolf, Mark Anthony, came to Bristol as a sailor in 1744. And then she wrote, "I haven’t stomach enough to describe the ensuing slave trade!"

What hit me hard was the realization that I already knew this—knew, but somehow buried it along the way. What no one in my family realized was that the DeWolfs were with the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. They brought over 10,000 Africans to the Americas in chains. Half a million of their descendants could be alive today.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from  Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, narrated, produced and directed by Katrina Browne. After the film aired on PBS’s POV in 2008, she went on to found the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery to inspire dialogue and active response to this history and its many legacies. Katrina Browne now joins us from Washington, D.C. And still with us, MIT Professor Craig Steven Wilder, author of the new book,  Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

Katrina, take us from there. You discover, though you say you knew, some kind of primal secret, what your family—how significant the DeWolfs were in slave trading.

KATRINA BROWNE: It’s—in our family case, it’s a bit of a stand-in for the region as a whole, because I heard things as a child, but I didn’t allow them to sink in, because it’s so—it’s basically cognitive dissonance, I would say, for white Northerners to think that we have any relationship to slavery, because we’re so much—I think all of us— raised and educated in our schools to believe the South were the bad guys and the North were the—Northerners were the heroes. So, it was hard to comprehend and shocking to discover as I dug more into it.

And because of this larger untold story of the role of the North, I decided to produce a documentary. And what we did was basically I invited relatives to join me on a journey to retrace the triangle trade of our ancestors. And nine brave cousins came with me, and we went to Rhode Island and then Ghana and Cuba, where the DeWolfs owned plantations, in that pattern that Professor Wilder was talking about of, even after slavery was abolished in the North, even after the slave trade itself was abolished in the North, folks like the DeWolfs continued to be invested in slavery through actual plantations in the Caribbean—in their case, Cuba—as well as through that carrying trade of provisioning the islands and the American South.

 
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