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Family confronts the North's slave-trading past

Descendants of the DeWolf family of Rhode Island retrace the infamous 'triangle trade' in a documentary film.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2008

'Traces of the Trade': In a film about the DeWolf family, descendants pore over historical records of slave trading.

Holly Fulton/Ebb Pod Productions

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Katrina Browne was studying at seminary when her grandmother sent her a booklet she'd written on their family history. As she read it, one sentence stunned her: It mentioned the DeWolfs' slave-trading business out of Bristol, R.I.

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"The first shock was as if finding out for the first time the horror of being descended from slave traders," she says. "But within moments, I realized I already knew, and yet had completely buried it."

It was that second shock of recognizing her own "amnesia" that spurred Ms. Browne to dig into the history further, and the surprises continued. The DeWolfs, she learned, created a wealthy dynasty that became the largest slave-trading family in early America. She assumed those forebears were an exception, but found they were part of a broad pattern of Northern participation in slavery.

To explore what that participation meant for her family and the country, Browne contacted all the relatives she could identify, inviting them to travel their ancestors' trade route from Bristol to Africa and the Caribbean. Nine other DeWolf descendants signed on, and last week, a documentary of their journey produced by Browne premièred at the Sundance Film Festival. "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North" was purchased by PBS and will be shown as part of its Point of View (P.O.V.) series.

The US slave trade was abolished by Congress 200 years ago this month, and the family hopes their journey will help, along with commemorative events, to spark more open and honest dialogue among blacks and whites.

"We are really two parallel societies in America," says Dain Perry, a cousin and financial representative from Boston who joined the trip, "and those two societies don't know how to communicate.... [It's] only through telling our stories and listening to each other's stories ... that we can be healed as a nation."

Only a few family members knew each other before their travels. Ellie Hale lives in Seattle, and says her branch of the family had lost touch with its roots. She also felt little connection to the need for racial dialogue and reconciliation. But Katrina's invitation piqued her interest.

"I thought the trip would be difficult, and I was right about that," she says in a phone interview from Sundance. "But I started off with a readiness to listen, and now I feel like I can actually open my heart to hear."

The adventurous family members from around the country met on July 4, 2001, to begin their journey in Bristol. The DeWolfs were "the great folks" of Bristol in the late 18th and early 19th century, with James DeWolf becoming the second-richest man in America. They visited his stately mansion, Linden Place, which is now a city museum.

The group delved into files from the 1760s to the 1820s, which revealed the details of the family's burgeoning wealth, including ships, a rum distillery, plantations in Cuba, an auction house, a bank, and an insurance company. They found that Bristol was the center of the slave trade after the Revolutionary War.

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