The DeWolf Family Burden
Author and filmmaker discover and research their family's slave-trading past.
February 3, 2008
For much of his life, Thomas Norman DeWolf successfully avoided the thorny issues of race, inequality and white privilege.
When blacks rioted in Los Angeles in the ’60s, he left a troubled public school for an all-white private one. He graduated from a Christian college and moved to Bend, Ore., a town that is “95 percent white.”
“I grew up watching Leave it to Beaver,” says the former businessman and county commissioner. On Sundays he went to church; in the summer he lived at the beach.
Then, in 2001, he joined nine distant cousins on a life-changing journey.
The organizer, Katrina Browne, had made a startling discovery while at seminary school: their ancestors, the DeWolfs of Bristol, had dominated the nation’s slave trade for 50 years.
“Everyone has secrets,” says DeWolf in his powerful new memoir, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History.The DeWolfs had a big one: From 1769 to 1820, the clan’s fathers, sons and grandsons trafficked in human beings. They sailed ships filled with rum and guns from Bristol to West Africa, where they purchased African captives on the coast. The captives were then shipped to plantations that the DeWolfs owned in Cuba or were sold at auction in such ports as Havana and Charleston, S.C.
The family owned 47 ships and transported 10,000 Africans into New World slavery. That represented about 60 percent of all slave voyages from Bristol.
When the United States outlawed the practice in 1808, the DeWolfs broke the law and shipped slaves from Africa to Cuba.
Business was good. With money from the trade and privateering, the DeWolfs opened a bank, an insurance company and a rum distillery on the Bristol waterfront. By one account, a quarter of the town’s residents did business directly with the family. In 1812, the DeWolfs owned more ships than the U.S. Navy.
They weren’t alone. As scholars have shown, Rhode Islanders, many of them in Newport and Providence, financed more than 1,000 slave voyages and transported more than 100,000 Africans across the terrible Middle Passage.
FOR YEARS THE story of the North’s involvement in the trade has been ignored, played down or forgotten, a victim of what one historian calls “Northern amnesia.”
DeWolf’s book, published last month by Beacon Press, is part of a growing effort to recover that past.
Katrina Brown, above, at the cemetery in Bristol where six generations of DeWolfs are buried. At right, Thomas Norman DeWolf, author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History – Photo by Frieda Squires
Much of the book chronicles the making of Katrina Browne’s documentary film, the similarly titled Traces of the Trade, a Story from the Deep North.
The film follows Browne, the author, and eight other DeWolf descendants, ranging from sisters to seventh cousins, as they retrace the steps of the Triangle Trade.
The film, which has been shown in Rhode Island several times, won national attention last month when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Both the film and book start with a key event: the Fourth of July parade in Bristol.
Gathering in 2001, the DeWolf descendants, dubbed “The Family of Ten,” watch from the sloping lawn of Linden Place, a mansion built by George DeWolf with money made from the slave trade and his Cuban plantation, Arca de Noe, or Noah’s Ark.
They examine slave shackles from the estate of Capt. James DeWolf, a U.S. senator charged with murdering a slave. And they pore over passages from family letters, including one dated July 4, 1795: “. . . bought nine prime slaves, one woman and eight men. Paid for them tobacco, rum, hats, bread, mackerel . . . .”
The emerging picture bears little resemblance to the romanticized family portrait that the cousins grew up with. The DeWolfs, they were told, were “upright Yankees” and leading citizens — ministers and bishops, philanthropists and professors, artists and architects.
What to do with this new portrait?
“Don’t soil the DeWolf name, that’s the message I’m getting,” says Holly Fulton, a Peabody, Mass., school teacher.
Dain Perry, a financial planner from Boston, imagines a sign on a local street announcing, “You are entering Bristol, the historic center of U.S. slave trading.” Another cousin finds it “chilling” that her ancestors beat and whipped people.
THE GROUP grapples with another burden, too.
Browne asks them to read an article on white privilege, defined by author Peggy McIntosh as “an invisible packet of unearned assets,” a weightless knapsack jammed with “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”
The cousins, nearly all of them Ivy League graduates, do not argue with McIntosh’s thesis.
“I know how to dress, talk, act and use the body language of the ruling class and the powers that be,” says Elizabeth Sturges Llerena, a New York artist and teacher. “I don’t get stopped, watched, harassed or beaten by the police. I am on the inside track instantly.”
DeWolf, then 47, begins to squirm; he’s a long way from Bend, Ore. Hurt by an economic slump, he has lost a movie theater and restaurant and is now working as a county commissioner.
He is between things, in limbo, facing issues he avoided for years.
“This is heavier than I expected,” he says. “The impact of race is so much greater than I ever realized …. If I were black, I think I’d be angry — not only at what took place over the past few hundred years, but at white people who don’t have a clue what’s going on today.”
Before they leave for Africa, the group hears from Keith Stokes, a black historian and executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce. “Race relations are difficult to talk about,” he warns. But don’t forget, he adds: 11.5 million Africans came to the New World as slaves. They worked in New England ports and on Southern plantations.
“This is the foundation of the creation of North America.”
IN GHANA, things begin to unravel.
Reeling from oppressive heat and pointed questions, the cousins bicker. Tempers fray.
At first, their collective guilt is assuaged by two professors at the University of Ghana. Every civilization practiced slavery, they say. And African chiefs sold slaves to the European traders. But the trade, they add, was driven by European demand.
It’s not a topic many Ghanaians want to discuss, says Prof. Kofi Anyidoho. “It’s not a pleasant story. Each time we tell it, people weep. If you tell it truly, people have to cry.” He continues: “Slavery is the living wound under a patchwork of scars. The only hope of healing is to be willing to break through the scars to finally clean the wound properly and begin the healing.”
In Bristol, the cousins had been nearly invisible. But in Ghana they arrive during Panafest, a huge celebration of African independence and culture. Some of their efforts to reach out were rebuffed.
“Are you not ashamed of coming here?” asks a student. Another insists that the family apologize for the deeds of their ancestors. A Ghanaian woman working with the film crew asks, “If you are trying to ease racial tensions, why are you having this conversation in Ghana, when the problem is really in America?”
At one point the family tours the dank rooms of two of Africa’s largest slave forts. At Cape Coast Castle, they crowd into a dungeon for a scene in Browne’s film. Suddenly, the camera lights fail and the room turns black, suffocating, airless.
DeWolf can see nothing as he sits inside a space that once held up to 200 men.
“For the first moment in my life I have an inkling of what total despair feels like,” he says. “Unimaginable horror envelopes me, pierces me. Tears stream down my cheeks.”
DeWolf, of course, is not a slave. For a moment, he feels terror. But then he realizes he can never know the real horror of the place, or comprehend the loss and despair felt by millions of African men, women and children ripped from their homes.
The realization makes him even more miserable.
“I feel worse, more alone than I have ever felt in my life. Yet I am only scratching the surface of the scar.”
IN CUBA, the group visits abandoned slave quarters and former sugar mills. “You should not feel the weight of history,” counsels Natalia Bolivar, an Afro-Cuban scholar. “You’re not living in the Inquisition.”
But the cousins cannot shake their past. More than 100 slaves worked on one DeWolf plantation in 1818.
The DeWolfs, they learn, gave their plantations optimistic names: New Hope, Good Hope, Mount Hope. The slaves did not share in that optimism. In 1821, two ran away from one of the plantations. After they were caught, they were placed in heavy irons for four days and given “twenty-four lashes on the naked bottom ….”
When the trip ends, the family meets for a final time in Bristol to answer some tough questions. What do they owe society? What should they do? Can racism be erased?
“This project has so opened my eyes to things I’ve simply been blind to,” says Thomas DeWolf during a break at the Sundance Film Festival. “It is a spiritual quest for me, but not in the traditional sense. People really need to examine their own lives and see the ways in which we perpetuate inequality.”
The book and film come at a time when both race and gender have surfaced in the presidential campaign. DeWolf tackles both in his book, along with religious intolerance.
Although the book serves as a behind-the-scenes look at the film, it also offers something the film does not: a long deep look at one man’s interior journey. Mildly interested in the trip at first, DeWolf charts his every discomfort as he confronts harsh truths about his family, America and himself. At one point, he holds his head in his hands.
DeWolf, who dreamed of writing as a teenager, took notes on the initial trip but did not start working full-time on the book until 2 1/2.
Seven years later, the cousins are part of an effort to reach a racial conciliation through public discussions and education. DeWolf is convinced that four things must happen first: awareness of the issue, an apology, some kind of reparations, and forgiveness from the harmed party. Legislators in New Jersey, Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia have apologized or expressed “profound regret” for their role in slavery and the slave trade. Rhode Island should too, says DeWolf.
In the final pages of his book, DeWolf explains his philosophy this way:
“In recounting my journey with nine distant cousins, my intent is to stimulate both reflection and serious conversation. There are no simple answers. But if we don’t confront these challenging issues, we will resolve nothing.” By speaking out, he says, “we finally break through the scars to clean the living wound properly and begin the healing . . . together.”