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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.

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"New England accounted for the lion's share of the slave trade," says historian Joanne Pope Melish of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and "Rhode Island accounted for half the slaving voyages." Northern ships, commodities, equipment, and investment provisioned slave plantations at home and abroad.

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Dr. Melish argues that New England was built on slavery, and that that history has been buried beneath the story of the abolitionist movement. "It's not that rich men owned slaves," she adds, "but that slaves made men rich."

Prominent historian David Brion Davis of Yale Uni­­versity has written, "By the early 1800s there was hardly a business, in the South or the North, without ties to slavery."

The DeWolf descendants were stunned to learn that after the 1808 abolition of the trade, President Thomas Jefferson, at the request of James DeWolf, appointed a particular customs official for Bristol. That official looked the other way and let the slave trade continue for years. (Slavery within the US was abolished gradually in Northern states, but internal trading continued until 1865.)

The next stop on the "triangle trade" took the travelers to two slave forts on the West African coast of Ghana. There they learned how captives were sold by African elites, and that missionaries came along on DeWolf ships to baptize the slaves and give them Christian names.

A visit to the dungeons at Cape Coast castle, where thousands of slaves were kept in tiny spaces, was emotionally in­­tense. "The dank air, the darkness, and the pounding surf of the ocean at the base of the castle wall – you could hear it outside the one small high window," Ms. Hale says. "You could practically feel the ghosts – it was unbelievably powerful...."

Flying on to Cuba, where the DeWolfs had owned coffee and sugar plantations, the group learned the plantations were still operating with slaves in 1875. The DeWolf mansion, Linden Place, was built in 1810 from a year's illegal profits.

Later, the clan gathered to talk with experts and consider what their experience called on them to do. While their forebears were an extreme case, they concluded slavery was propped up by ordinary people. Farmers raised crops and industries forged tools sent to plantations. Middle-class folk bought shares in the trade. Owning slaves to grow food left Northern men free to start businesses.

It's not that everyone was evil, Browne says, but the outcome was evil. "How do we as a nation come to grips with that, and what does that call for today?"

Too many Americans fail to grasp the residual effects of slavery. They insist they aren't racist and that the nation should look to the future. The family says a great deal of healing is needed on both sides.

"Many white people carry a lot of unarticulated fears and assumptions about African-Americans, and it goes both ways," Hale says. "[To] have real connections with our fellow humans, we have to surface those."

The family supports a congressional bill, HR 40, that would create a commission to study slavery's legacy and remedies. The film will soon be out on DVD, and they hope that faith communities and others will use it as a basis for dialogue.

They're taking individual steps, too. Hale has joined the diversity advisory council at her workplace. "The trip changed how I view the world and brought me the courage of my convictions," she says. "It feels like my thoughts and my deeds are now better lined up."