Slave Traders in the Family: Probing a Dark Past

Slave Traders in the Family: Probing a Dark Past

Katrina Browne, standing outside Linden Place, is exploring the meaning of her family’s role in the Bristol slave trade. After meeting with family members, she decided to tell their story of grappling with the past in a documentary called Traces of the Trade. Linden Place, a mansion built in 1810 by General George DeWolf, a weathly Bristol merchant, who made his fortune in the slave-trading business.

In her late 20s, Katrina Browne questioned her place in the world.

Burned out by social work in Washington, D.C., she sought refuge in a seminary school overlooking San Francisco Bay.

There, in a spot called Holy Hill, she asked herself, “Who am I? Where do I fit in?”

The answer, from an unexpected source, shook her. One day her grandmother sent a family history. The family tree boasted bishops, writers, architects and artists — upright Yankees with “their faces to the wind.” But its trunk rose from the dark waters of the slave trade.

In fact, Browne could trace her family back seven generations to Mark Anthony DeWolf, the father of the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history.

Growing up in downtown Philadelphia, Browne first heard of the family’s slave-trading past as a teenager — and promptly repressed it.

Now, in her first year at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, the truth hit her hard.

Rattled, she called home. Her mother sent a second history, Mount Hope: A New England Chronicle, by George Howe, a great uncle.

Browne shrank.

In chapters such as “The Slave Trade,” Howe pulled no punches in his description of the DeWolfs. They intimidated customs officials and broke state and federal laws, he said. James DeWolf was charged with murdering a slave. His brother, Charles, literally wallowed in his money in front of a local parson.

This was not American history or family history as Browne knew it.

“Everything about it was contrary to my image of my family and how we’d been raised,” says Browne.

Captain Jim DeWolf owned Hog Island (he called it “my plum pudding set in a silver bowl”) and built a deer park which he later turned into a family burying ground. In the center he piled up an earthen mound 20 feet high – his future grave, to be shared with his wife, Nancy. According to historian George Howe, he added an open-work iron door to the mound and told his children that in the future they could “look through the door at us. As long as any of you are around, you’ll see my gold teeth, even when the rest of us is dust.”

The DeWolfs, she discovered, weren’t alone.

From the early 1700s to 1807, Rhode Island captains made 1,000 trips to Africa.

“I took some comfort in knowing it wasn’t just my family involved in the slave trade,” Browne said. But, she added, “It also shattered my image of the North.

* * *

What to do with such a story?

Browne had an idea, one based in antiquity.

At the Pacific School of Religion, she had studied the way Greek playwrights used drama to spark public debate.

She decided to turn her story into an hour-long documentary called Traces of the Trade.

Her plan called for trips to Bristol, Africa and Cuba. But she didn’t want to make the trip alone. So, in 2001, she convinced nine DeWolf descendants to join her, including a Colorado rancher, a former county commissioner from Oregon and an Episcopal priest.

In Africa, Browne and the other family members huddled inside a dark room in a former slave dungeon in Ghana. In Cuba, they walked through the ruins of two DeWolf plantations.

A year later, they met in Bristol to “confront the thorny issue of what to do now,” she says.

* * *

What to do now.

It’s a key phrase for Browne who, at 38, is finishing Traces in an editing room in an historic home in Cambridge. The soft-spoken filmmaker speaks often of “psychological baggage,” racism and white privilege — the aftermath of America’s slave trade.

There’s all this psychological baggage and we need to unpack it,” she says. “We’re in this vicious circle.”

The more white Americans deny the trade, the more they say, ” ‘It wasn’t me, leave me alone, I didn’t do it, don’t guilt trip me,’ the angrier that makes black Americans, who feel no one’s ever taken responsibility for the slave trade, no one’s ever apologized, no one’s ever wanted to say, ‘Oh my goodness, this was a horrific thing your people have gone through.’ “

Although she’s never considered a life in the church, Browne has a bit of the missionary about her. Her passion — with its emphasis on complicity and responsibility — has upset both family members and some Bristol residents, who prefer to focus on Bristol’s celebrated Fourth of July parade.

During an early screening of Traces in Boston, one of Browne’s cousins, Lisa Colt, described the filmmaker this way: “I had the sense that Katrina had waded into deep, cold, dark water and left her life raft behind.”

“A lot of people are unhappy with what Katrina is doing,” says Kevin E. Jordan, a retired professor at Roger Williams University.

That doesn’t surprise Jordan, who helped Browne with some of the research for the film.

Many of Bristol’s slave trade records have been either lost, or “systematically destroyed. It’s hard to say which,” he says.

The film, he says, dispels the argument that Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade was marginal. “The mythology is that only a few people did it, and it wasn’t that important. It’s part of the whitewashing of our history.”

* * *

Browne plans to broadcast Traces in 2007 to coincide with the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade.

New Englanders need to remember their role in the slave trade, says Browne, who wants her film shown in classrooms and community halls.

“To tell the story of the DeWolfs, you have to tell the story of the shipbuilders, the sailmakers, the rum makers, the blacksmiths who made the chains and locks, and the people who bought shares in the slave ships. It just goes on and on. It’s a much bigger and broader story, and it’s important to set the record straight about New England’s complicity,” she says.

“When I first went into this, I was thinking in terms of angels and devils. The story of the North and South is often told as the story of angels and devils. But it’s more subtle than that.”

Paul Davis is a former staff writer for The Providence Journal.

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