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A Northern Family's Role in the Slave Trade

Northerners are usually portrayed as benevolent abolitionists. But one woman tells a different story of slavery in the "deep north."
 
 
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American slave trading is a human rights atrocity forever associated with the Confederacy of the Southern United States. Northerners are stereotypically portrayed as benevolent abolitionists fighting the South's slave labor plantations. But history is rarely that cut and dried.

Katrina Browne is the producer, director, and writer of "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North," which premiers on PBS as part of the Point of View film series on June 24. She grew up very proud of ancestry: Her New England-based DeWolf family is filled with generations of prominent and successful people. The fact that they originally made their fortune as slave traders was only ever mentioned in family lore as a footnote. As Browne says, "I never thought to ask how we got so established."

While attending the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., Browne received a DeWolf family history booklet written by her grandmother that referenced her family's slave-trading past. Browne was appalled. Then she realized that this was not news to her; rather, she had known most of her life that the DeWolfs were slave traders, but she had never fully acknowledged the horrendous truth about her family's past. After deciding that she had to do something to come to terms with her ancestry, Browne contacted 200 DeWolf descendants asking them to join her on a journey around the Triangle Trade route that made three generations of DeWolfs the most prominent slave-trading family in the United States. One hundred forty people never responded to her letter; nine relatives signed up.

"Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North," which has screened at a number of film festivals, including Sundance, documents the 2001 journey Browne and her relatives took to trace her ancestors' route from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba and back again. The result is a powerful 86-minute film that starts an important and often uncomfortable dialogue about race.

Browne asked her relatives to travel with her because she felt that it was "more than I could take on by myself." The group dynamic also stimulated very intense discussions about race and accountability; different family members felt very differently about guilt and responsibility. The DeWolfs brought more than 10,000 Africans to the United States and Cuba, and more than 500,000 descendants of those slaves are alive today.

Do the DeWolf descendants bear some responsibility for their ancestors' actions?

The journey begins in Bristol, R.I., the ancestral home of the DeWolfs. At the height of their enterprise, the DeWolfs' business supported the entire town of Bristol -- local shipyards built the ships used to transport slaves and goods; the distilleries made rum from sugar grown on the DeWolfs' Cuban plantations; Bristol warehouses stored their rum and sugar; and many New Englanders owned slaves that the DeWolfs bought and sold. Their former mansion, Linden Place, is now a museum, and St. Michael's Episcopal Church has enormous stained glass windows bearing the family's name. While trading thousands of slaves, the DeWolfs called themselves Christians.

The truth about their lineage didn't really seem to resonate with the DeWolf descendants while in Bristol; the Northeastern town is far too idyllic to really bring home the ghastly reality of slavery. But the real contrast of how slave traders lived in comparison to the slaves they bought and sold was too dramatic to ignore in Ghana. For generations, the DeWolfs traded rum and other goods for slaves on the African coast. While visiting the dark, cramped cells where slaves were held before being traded, Browne and her relatives were physically sickened by the inhumane conditions.

"It was an evil thing -- they knew it was an evil thing, and they did it anyway," declared Tom DeWolf, who has since written a book about his experience, "Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History."

In Ghana, the DeWolf travelers were not well received by many of the Africans and African Americans they met. They were much too obvious to go unnoticed -- especially in their fanny packs and Boston Red Sox baseball hats. Dain Perry, who came with his brother and nephew, puts out his hand to shake hands with an African American woman who is visiting Ghana, but she refuses it, saying, "I was hoping to not see any white people." When the racial tension becomes too much, Browne and her relatives seek refuge in a nature preserve, which seems like an oddly self-indulgent activity considering the purpose of their visit.

Aside from the occasional moment of disconnect, the DeWolf descendants are very candid. During a town hall discussion in Ghana, Perry admits that while growing up in Charleston, S.C., in the 1940s and 1950s, the extremely racist environment shaped his views. Although he claims to have overcome his discriminatory beliefs, admitting that he was a racist in a room filled with Africans is surprisingly honest. Browne, who notes that she is from a different and more culturally accepting generation than Perry, tells the group that she still "feels separate from black Americans." The film is truly a microcosm for the larger debate that Americans need to have about race and responsibility.

Their final stop is Cuba, the former location of the DeWolfs' sugar and coffee plantations, which were active until 1875. Although the plantations no longer exist, their profits funded the building of Linden Place in Rhode Island. Today, little evidence of the DeWolfs' slave trade in Cuba remains, but even so, the group has a breakdown of sorts when descendant Keila DePoorter tells everyone, "we're being our nice Protestant selves and I'm tired of it." Finally a real discussion about their ancestors and current responsibility as descendants begins.

Even though none of the modern DeWolfs directly inherited any money made during the slave trade, there is a definite sense that their current affluence is a result of their ancestry. The DeWolfs' influence was so far-reaching that President Thomas Jefferson gave them a dispensation to continue trading slaves after it became illegal in 1808. It's hard to ignore that this kind of elite status typically sustains itself for generations; many members of Browne's group, including Browne herself, attended Ivy League schools and lead very affluent lives.

"Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North" is an incredibly well executed and powerful film. It tackles an important discussion about race that most people would rather ignore because it is both painful and too often considered taboo, especially in regard to slavery. But the reality is that many Americans, not just Southern plantation owners, benefited from the cheap labor and goods fueled by the slave trade. Though not everyone may be able to trace their own lineage back to a family like the DeWolfs, the film makes the point that everyone can participate in a discussion about race.

 
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