The Common Good
July 2008

The Mirrors of History

by Dedrick Muhammad | July 2008

Members of a prominent slave-trading family confront the wounds of the past and present.

Katrina Browne was in seminary when she received a booklet from her grandmother that outlined their family history. It’s a history some part of her knew but had chosen to forget: Her ancestors, the DeWolfs of Bristol, Rhode Island, had not only been involved in the slave trade for three generations (between 1769 and 1820), they were the single largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. One storied ancestor, James DeWolf, was a U.S. senator and the second wealthiest man in the country before he died in 1837. Others were prominent New England industrialists and Episcopal clergy who directly benefited from the wealth and privilege of their slave-trading relatives.

Browne decided to reckon with this history and invited 200 of her relatives to join her. Nine accepted. Browne’s film, Traces of the Trade, which debuts June 24 on PBS, documents the spiritual, physical, and moral journey of these 10 family members as they come to terms with their history, the horrible legacy of the slave trade, and their responsibility for dealing with its effects.

The film follows Browne and her cousins as they retrace their family’s slave-trading triangle, starting at the historical DeWolf mansion in Bristol. They learn that the DeWolf enterprises were horizontally and vertically integrated into the slave trade, with their ships transporting rum, cane, and enslaved Africans. The DeWolfs owned not only ships but also rum distilleries in Bristol, sugar plantations in Cuba, and slave auction facilities in South Carolina. The family members see how profits from African enslavement provided the working capital for the first industrial textile mills and served as a foundation for economic development in New England.

The cousins then travel to Ghana, visiting the dungeons in which hundreds of Africans were held before they were forced through the “door of no return,” and then to Cuba, where they find the remnants of a family plantation that helped provide the profits for the DeWolfs’ idyllic life in Rhode Island. As we accompany the cousins, we travel our own journey—reexamining our understanding of history, its impact on current realities, and our responsibility for change.

TRACES OF THE TRADE moves seamlessly from a personal historical narrative to highlighting contemporary truths. A telling scene takes place around the dinner table, some weeks after the family’s return from Cuba. During the conversation, some family members express concern that Browne’s documentary might portray them, inaccurately, as an elite family. Jim DeWolf Perry V says that Browne, while filming the documentary, pushed him to mention that he attended Harvard University. “My going to Harvard wasn’t about privilege,” Jim says. “I earned my way to Harvard.” He then tells the group that he taught himself to read by age 4 and worked “his butt off at every level of school.”

Further conversation reveals that Jim’s father also went to Harvard, that each of the cousins graduated from college, and that all but one had a parent who graduated from Princeton, Harvard, or Brown. It’s a painful scene—as Browne says, “There is nothing like having to look at ourselves in the mirror.” Indeed, according to the latest Census Bureau, only 31 percent of whites 25 years and older had graduated from a four-year institution, making this DeWolf group extremely privileged compared to the rest of society. This searing episode, one of many in the film, dramatizes how privilege conferred hundreds of years ago still marks family members today.

The 10 cousins grapple with family denial and amnesia (at one point in the film, cousin Kelia DePoorter recalls four subjects the family was never to discuss: “Sex, politics, religion, and the Negroes”), the legacy of white privilege, and, perhaps most important, the actions they can take to rectify present-day racial disparities. Member of Congress John Conyers Jr., chair of the House Judiciary Committee, appears in the documentary discussing House Reso­lution 40, which he introduced 19 years ago to create a national commission to investigate the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Browne and her cousins, after discussing with Conyers the issues of repair and forgiveness, decide to actively support HR 40 as part of their attempt to rectify the historic injustice that has been perpetuated against African-American people.

The DeWolfs also engage their local communities and institutions of personal importance. Browne returns to preach at the ancestral Episcopal church in Bristol, a church where DeWolf ancestors served as clergy and patrons, and whose stained-glass windows include the DeWolf name. She calls on the Bristol community to come to terms with its hidden history, to repent and heal. In an inspired moment, a priest calls the white congregation forward for a healing ritual. In another scene, DeWolf family members testify at the national Episcopal convention for a resolution that acknowledges the church’s sinful past, to apologize for it, and to seek detailed information on the economic benefits to the church of slavery and its aftermath. The resolution, which passed, calls for a three-year process to study how to best repair the current divide among blacks and whites.

Traces of the Trade is a serious and moving film that not only reveals the roots of our racial divide but also provides examples of actions taken to repair it. Browne and her family members are inspiring as they engage the complex and uncomfortable legacy of white supremacy in the United States. Hopefully this important film will spark much-needed discussion about the present-day impact of white supremacy—and the role we all have in abolishing the remaining traces of the trade.

Dedrick Muhammad, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, works for the Institute for Policy Studies and recently co-authored the report “40 Years Later: The Unrealized American Dream.” For more on U.S. racial and economic divides, visit www.inequality.org.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)