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A Family of Slave Traders

General Assembly 2008 Event 4022

From the flyleaf of Thomas DeWolf's book, which summarizes his story quite well:

In 2001, at forty-seven, Thomas DeWolf was astounded to discover that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in American history, responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans to the Americas. His infamous ancestor, U.S. Senator James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, curried favor with President Jefferson to continue in the trade after it was outlawed. When James DeWolf died in 1837, he was the second-richest man in America.

When Katrina Browne, Thomas DeWolf's cousin, learned about their family's history, she resolved to confront it head-on, producing and directing a documentary feature film, Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North.

Inheriting the Trade is Tom DeWolf's powerful and disarmingly honest memoir of the journey in which ten family members retraced the steps of their ancestors and uncovered the hidden history of New England and the other northern states.

Their journey through the notorious Triangle Trade—from New England to West Africa to Cuba—proved life-altering, forcing DeWolf to face the horrors of slavery directly for the first time. It also inspired him to contend with the complicated legacy that continues to affect black and white Americans, Africans, and Cubans today.

"Inheriting the Trade" reveals that the North's involvement in slavery was as common as the South's. Not only were black people enslaved in the North for over two hundred years, but the vast majority of all slave trading in America was done by Northerners. Remarkably, half of all North American voyages involved in the slave trade originated in Rhode Island, and all the northern states benefitted.

With searing candor, DeWolf tackles both the internal and external challenges of his journey—writing frankly about feelings of shame, white male privilege, the complicity of churches, and our nation's desperate need for healing.

This week, Katrina Browne's movie about the family's trip is being screened on PBS stations nationwide, as part of the network's "Point of View" (or "POV") series. (It will be out on DVD within a few weeks.) In his talk before a Unitarian Universalist (UU) crowd on Saturday, DeWolf read an excerpt from the book, and shared some of his experiences on his life-changing trip with nine other members of his extended family whom he hadn't previously known.

DeWolf considers his book a "historical memoir" that brings home to Americans the history of Ghana and Cuba—and the things New Englanders did after that first Mayflower Thanksiving that changed both countries forever. "There are people who think this is self-indulgent white guilt junk," he admitted. But there are others, including Sherrilyn Ifill (who gave a passionate talk on truth and reconciliation at last year's General Assembly) who believe this is exactly the kind of truth-telling that must happen before America 's festering racial wounds can finally begin to heal.

DeWolf first learned of his family's history through the father of a friend, Episcopal minister Halsey DeWolf Howe. In retirement, Howe had assembled a complete family genealogy, linking the DeWolfs to Hollywood celebrities (including gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, the Barrymores, and Perry Mason star William Hopper, who played Paul Drake), political figures, and other colorful characters.

The most colorful of them all was Captain James DeWolf, who was responsible for the family's original fame and fortune. Much of the fortune was acquired as a privateer in the War of 1812, when De Wolf had more ships at sea than the fledgling U.S. Navy did. An admiring nephew, Herman Melville, wrote Captain Jim into Moby Dick. But another significant fraction of it came from DeWolf's aggressive pursuit of the Triangle Trade, bringing slaves from Africa to Cuba, sugar from Cuba to the Northeast, and textiles to Africa to trade for slaves.

One Christmas in the early 1800s, DeWolf gave his wife two children as slaves—Adjue and Pauledore—who remained with the family until their deaths around the time of the Civil War. In the family writings, they are mentioned affectionately; and Adjue was buried with the immediate family in their graveyard. The story was told that an abolitionist once approached the family to free the two so they could go to Liberia; but, of course, the tale also says that the two were very relieved when the family refused. It could hardly be told any other way.

Through the Howes, Thomas learned of Katrina Browne's plans to make a movie about the family, and the trip she was organizing. In July of 2001, the ten distant cousins—who hadn't known each other previously—gathered in Bristol to begin their journey.

They met with local historians, whom they discovered were very reluctant to discuss the slave trade. ( Linden Place also refused to allow them to film.) In their visits with churches, they were struck by the degree to which Northern Protestants were complicit in the slave trade, and how little they did to stop it.

From there, the group went on to Ghana, where they toured Cape Coast Castle, the place Captain Jim picked up many of his slaves. DeWolf read aloud the passage describing his tour through the castle's dungeons—five rooms about 15 by 30 feet, each of which would hold as many as 200 soon-to-be-slaves at a time:

The floor, walls, and ceiling are stone. Small carved trenches a few inches wide and a few inches deep once functioned as a toilet. They run around the outside as well and through the middle of the floor. They don't drain anywhere. The curved ceiling rises thirty feet over our heads. Three small openings, about eight inches wide and two feet tall, in the wall far above provide the only access to fresh air, but there is no way for it to circulate. At five degrees from the equator, the stagnant air is hot and miserably humid. I'm sweltering. My clothes are drenched. I'm disgusted by the images in my mind. I'm angry. I want out of here....

I imagine being here two hundred years ago with no lights, no comforts; only those small holes far above connect me with the world outside this hard room and stifling heat. I can't focus in the blackness. I can only hear and feel and smell. What I hear and feel and smell are the worst things I've ever sensed in my life. My heart beats rapidly within my aching body.

Thoughts turn to those I love. Where is my wife? My last image is the utter panic on her face as I am beaten and torn away from her and our village. I tried to fight but they overwhelmed me; struck me; shackled me. Her screams still echo in my ears....Throughout my life, I have known my village and its surroundings. Never before have I traveled far from home. Now, forced to walk day after unending day to arrive at this dark stone dungeon, I wonder if I could ever find my way back home again, even if I were to escape. Many people died along the way. I see nothing, but hear groans all around. Some men weep. Others scream....Our tears drop to the hard floor and mingle with urine and feces and blood from our wounds. I wrap my arms around myself and rock back and forth, back and forth...

For the first time in my life, I have an inkling of what total despair feels like. Unimaginable horror envelops me, pierces me. Tears stream down my cheeks.

I glance from face to face, at each of my cousins, and a sense of a new depth of knowledge that did not exist thirty minutes ago. I doubt that any of us was prepared to face the exhumed rotting corpse of a family secret buried in this place so long ago.

From Ghana, the crew went to Cuba, where the family owned five plantations during James DeWolf's heyday in the early 1800s. In Cuba, DeWolf confronted the modern reality of how this history continues to be ignored. He drew parallels between Cuba and the way these things are taught in schools and history books: "There's a band playing somewhere, and a mojito in your hand, and it makes it very easy not to deal with how things are set up."

DeWolf also told the story of the Ghanian woman who appears on the book's cover. Challenged by a friend for using the woman's photo without her permission, DeWolf contacted friends in Ghana to track her down—an impossible task, since she'd simply wandered into camera view one day, and nobody knew her name or village. Eric, a young man they'd met in Ghana, took on the job, contacting village leaders all over the region until one finally recognized her. When Eric found her, he was delighted to discover that they shared the same last name, and were likely family.

More eerily: The woman's Ghanian name is Adjue—the name of the slave girl Capt. DeWolf gave his wife.

DeWolf stressed that the purpose of the trip—or his talk—was not to make people feel guilty. These things were done by our ancestors, who are dead. We didn't do them. Our job is to get past the guilt, and find better, more honest ways to talk about and deal with difficult subjects. The book and the movie, he hopes, are invitations to do that.

Reported by Sara Robinson; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.