For centuries they were known as the “great folk,” wealthy and glamorous. In the seaside town of Bristol, Rhode Island, the DeWolfs were the luminaries: statesmen and professors, writers and wealthy merchants. The family’s wealth would have stood out anywhere, but in small town Rhode Island the family glittered with a special brilliance.
The DeWolfs shared one code: the “no-talk” rule. Never talk about sex, religion or politics. Or the fact that for years the DeWolfs were known as the ruthless US captains of the transatlantic slave trade.
After all, slavery belonged in the South. The North was supposed to be the home of staunch patriots and abolitionists, not of slave traders. Certainly not families like the DeWolfs, who from 1769-1820 adroitly manipulated every aspect of the Triangular Trade to become the largest slave traders in US history. Particularly once the Civil War was won, what was the sense in resifting through such old peccadilloes? Like others, the DeWolfs preferred to keep the memory of their New England forebears pristine.
But this year with the release of her first film, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, DeWolf descendant Katrina Browne is setting out to break her family’s silence. Part historical narrative, part chronicle of her clan’s efforts to grapple with their legacy, the film documents the journey of Browne and eight other DeWolfs as they retrace the Triangular Trade. From Bristol, where the family’s rum distilleries were based, the DeWolfs make their pilgrimage to the desolate dungeons of Ghana’s slave forts, where their ancestors bargained for enslaved Africans, to the ruins of a family-owned plantation in Cuba. Along the way, in tense and visceral meetings with Ghanians and African-Americans, the DeWolfs try to understand what their family’s historical responsibility means in a twenty-first-century America still highly segregated by race and class.
“I didn’t plan on being a documentary filmmaker,” says Browne, who first began researching DeWolf history as a 28-year-old student in seminary. “But this felt like a story that needed to be told.”
The film’s timing is fortuitous. This year marks the bicentennial of the US slave trade’s abolition–though to date the anniversary has received barely a nod. The Bush White House, bucking a past fondness for issuing celebratory bicentennial flourishes on behalf of events such as the Louisiana Purchase and the US Patent Office’s founding, has kept its press office quiet. A bill by Representative Donald Payne (D-New Jersey) that would establish a commission to pursue events in honor of the occasion inched its way through Congress in January, but only after all funding for such celebrations was stripped.
By contrast, last year when the United Kingdom marked its own bicentennial of the slave trade’s abolition, the British rolled out a lavish $40 million celebration ten years in the planning: national conferences, school programs and a crop of commemorative stamps and coins. Gordon Brown inaugurated an international museum–the first of its kind in the UK–dedicated to slavery.
In part, American reticence on this occasion can be linked to the anniversary’s double-edged significance in the United States. After all, while 1808 marked the formal US abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, nearly sixty years passed before the Thirteenth Amendment officially liberated the slaves in 1865. Meanwhile another hundred years of state-sanctioned lynching and Jim Crow would follow before blacks won the right to vote.
Yet according to Howard Dodson, who directs the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the United States’ reluctance to address the bicentennial is rooted in something deeper: fear. “The United States as a matter of policy doesn’t want anything to do with slavery, period, because they think it inevitably leads to a reparations discussion,” says Dodson. “For two terms, this administration has actively been campaigning against anything that brings up the subject.” (In 2001, US representatives walked out of the United Nations anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, over concern regarding reparations and anti-Zionist language being used in connection with the event.)
To be sure, in 1998 while traveling in Uganda, President Bill Clinton declared that slavery was “wrong.” And in 2003, President George W. Bush expressed his regret about the trade to a group in Senegal, saying that slavery had subjected Africans to an “assault on their culture and their dignity.” Yet it is telling that both Presidents made such statements not to African-Americans but rather while abroad, on trips to Africa. If slavery was indeed, as some have put it, America’s “original sin,” then at home, it has never been expiated.
Rather, its legacy continues to prove extraordinarily divisive. While in 2002, fully 68 percent of blacks thought the government should apologize for its support of slavery, more than 60 percent of whites opposed such an apology.
As a descendant of America’s most prominent slave traders, Browne says she understands the latter perspective. “When I first learned about [my family’s] history, my first impulse was to feel guilty,” says Browne. “Of course, that’s an emotion no one wants to feel, so for years, I pushed that history away.”
But the more she examined the facts, says Browne, the less defensive she became. The slave trade wasn’t solely about “individual monsters” like her ancestors. In a town like Bristol, everyone was in on the enterprise: buying shares in slave voyages (returns were as high as 25 percent), outfitting slave ships, manufacturing manacles, distilling rum for trade and working in the dried cod factories that fed the South’s enslaved. Slavery and the slave trade were the country’s economic scaffolding. And, accordingly, there were few whose lives were not intimately enmeshed in its structure. (In the confused catalogue of American race, it’s notable that in this presidential nomination cycle, both John McCain and Barack Obama are descended from slaveowners.)
Traces of the Trade closes with Browne’s testimonial before the 2006 convention of the Episcopal Church, which subsequently apologized for its historical ownership of slaves and complicity in the slave trade. “When you really start to face the history and open your heart, it becomes very natural to want to make things right,” said Browne. “Not out of personal guilt, but out of grief.”
Two decades after the modern reparations debate first engulfed the country, there are signs that legislators are increasingly open to continuing the discussion. Last year, Virginia became the first state to express “regret” over its ties to slavery; similar moves have followed in Maryland, North Carolina and Alabama. This January, New Jersey became the first Northern state to apologize for its role in the slave trade. Last December, for the first time in nearly twenty years, the bill repeatedly proposed by John Conyers (D-Michigan) to establish a commission to consider reparations received a hearing. Likewise in the House of Representatives, an apology for both slavery and Jim Crow has quietly garnered 120 sponsors under the leadership of Stephen Cohen (D-Tennessee); a companion resolution is being drafted in the Senate.
While some deride such moves as attempts to slough off responsibility or soothe the consciences of white liberals, James Campbell, who chaired the 2003-2006 Brown University effort to examine the school’s ties to the slave trade, sees efforts to re-examine history as a step towards justice, not an end unto itself. “I believe that how we see the past matters,” says Campbell, “because how we understand history helps shape the present matrix of political possibility.”
To Cohen, who remembers attending segregated sports games in the South as a child, an apology for slavery and its legacy isn’t about pointing fingers but coming to terms with a history that for too long has been elided.
“I didn’t own slaves. My parents didn’t own slaves,” says Cohen. “But as a government for a century, we continued to perpetuate the racism that was at the root of slavery in this country,” he says.
After a century of segregation and racial violence, he says, “This is an attempt to start the healing.”
So far, says Cohen, his resolution has not attracted the kind of acrid debate that has consumed the reparations movement in recent decades. Nevertheless, it may fare differently in the Senate, where the companion version of the resolution–slated for introduction by senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sam Brownback (R-Kansas)–more clearly showcases the echoes of such tensions. While the Senate resolution finds that the “enormous damage and loss” from slavery and Jim Crow still affects blacks today, the apology also concludes with the blunt disclaimer: “Nothing in this resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States.”