Filmmaker Uncovers Her Family’s Shocking Slave-Trading History, Urges Americans to Explore Own Roots

Democracy Now*

Documentary on the leadiung slave trade family of the United States.
Documentary on the leadiung slave trade family of the United States.

HAVANA TIMES – As we continue our conversation on slavery, we are joined by a woman who uncovered that her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Katrina Browne documented her roots in the film, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” which revealed how her family, based in Rhode Island, was once the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history.

After the film aired on PBS in 2008, Browne went on to found the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery. We speak to Browne and Craig Steven Wilder, author of the new book, “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.”

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our conversation on slavery, we’re joined by a woman who uncovered that her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Katrina Browne is with us. She documented her roots in the film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.

KATRINA BROWNE: One day my grandmother traced back. I was in seminary when I got a booklet in the mail that she wrote for all her grandchildren. She shared our family history—all the happy days. She also explained that the first DeWolf, Mark Anthony, came to Bristol as a sailor in 1744. And then she wrote, “I haven’t stomach enough to describe the ensuing slave trade!”

What hit me hard was the realization that I already knew this—knew, but somehow buried it along the way. What no one in my family realized was that the DeWolfs were with the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. They brought over 10,000 Africans to the Americas in chains. Half a million of their descendants could be alive today.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, narrated, produced and directed by Katrina Browne. After the film aired on PBS’s POV in 2008, she went on to found the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery to inspire dialogue and active response to this history and its many legacies. Katrina Browne now joins us from Washington, D.C. And still with us, MIT Professor Craig Steven Wilder, author of the new book, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

Katrina, take us from there. You discover, though you say you knew, some kind of primal secret, what your family—how significant the DeWolfs were in slave trading.

KATRINA BROWNE: It’s—in our family case, it’s a bit of a stand-in for the region as a whole, because I heard things as a child, but I didn’t allow them to sink in, because it’s so—it’s basically cognitive dissonance, I would say, for white Northerners to think that we have any relationship to slavery, because we’re so much—I think all of us— raised and educated in our schools to believe the South were the bad guys and the North were the—Northerners were the heroes. So, it was hard to comprehend and shocking to discover as I dug more into it.

And because of this larger untold story of the role of the North, I decided to produce a documentary. And what we did was basically I invited relatives to join me on a journey to retrace the triangle trade of our ancestors. And nine brave cousins came with me, and we went to Rhode Island and then Ghana and Cuba, where the DeWolfs owned plantations, in that pattern that Professor Wilder was talking about of, even after slavery was abolished in the North, even after the slave trade itself was abolished in the North, folks like the DeWolfs continued to be invested in slavery through actual plantations in the Caribbean—in their case, Cuba—as well as through that carrying trade of provisioning the islands and the American South.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip of Traces of the Trade. You and your relatives, as you said, go to Ghana. You’ve just visited the dark, dank rooms where Africans were kept until they were sold and loaded onto ships. This is your relative, Tom DeWolf, describing his reaction.

TOM DEWOLF: The thing that I guess strikes me more than anything right now is that we’ve talked, when we were in Bristol and we were in Providence and were listening to historians and scholars, and we’ve heard people talk about, you know, “You’ve got to place it in the context of the times,” and, “This is the way things were done,” and “This is how, you know, life was.” And I just—I sit in that dungeon, and I say, “[bleep]. It was an evil thing, and they knew it was an evil thing, and they did it anyway.” And I couldn’t have said that before—before tonight.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from Traces of the Trade, when you and your relatives visit Bristol, Rhode Island, where the DeWolf family lived and operated their slave trade. In this scene, you’re visiting with local historians.

KATRINA BROWNE: The more historians we talk to, the more sobering it got.

KEVIN JORDAN: The slave trade, you’ve got to remember, is not just a few people taking a boat and sending it out. Everyone in town lived off slavery—the boat makers, the ironworkers who made the shackles, the coopers who made the barrels to hold the rum, the distillers who took the molasses and sugar and made it into rum. So, literally the whole town was dependent on the slave trade.

JOANNE POPE MELISH: All of the North was involved. All these cities and towns along the coast—Salem, Boston, Providence, New London, New Haven, New York, and the rural areas around them—either traded slaves or manufactured goods or raised farm products for the slave trade.

AMY GOODMAN: That was historian Joanne Pope Melish in a clip from Traces of the Trade. Katrina Browne, some members of your family went on this journey with you. You were also shunned by others. Where has this taken you? I mean, this is not, as you point out, just any family involved with slavery, although that’s unbelievable to say in itself, it’s the—your family is the largest slave-trading family in the United States, and it’s in the North.

KATRINA BROWNE: Yeah, so, you know, it wouldn’t shock you or listeners to hear that there was obviously a great deal of anxiety and discomfort and nervousness about the idea of publicizing our family history. And I think one of the things I’ve come to appreciate is the depth of the emotions that get in the way for white Americans more broadly, not just our family. We’re an extreme case, but I think it’s a—it’s a sort of an example of a larger pattern, which is that defensiveness, fear, guilt, shame, those emotions get in our way both from really confronting the history and coming to appreciate the vast extent of sort of the tentacles of the institution of slavery and how fundamental it was to the birth and success of our nation and to paving the way for the waves of immigrants that came subsequently.

So, you know, discomfort looking at that history, but then also, obviously, discomfort around grappling with the implications for today and really coming to grips with that. And I hear so many black Americans say, you know, “We’re not trying to guilt-trip you. Quit taking it so personally. We just want you white folks to show up for the work, together with us, of repairing those harms that, you know, continue to plague this country.” So, I’ve noticed how I’ve gone from, like, you know, extreme kind of major guilt reaction upon learning this about my family and my region to a more grounded and, I would say, mature and calmer ability to take stock of the inheritance that I think—you know, we’re an extreme case, again, but it provides a view into what I think all white Americans need to look at in terms of those legacies of white privilege and whatnot.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Katrina, what is your family’s, the DeWolf family’s, relation to Brown? Of course, your last name is Browne. But Brown University, of course, they’re based in Rhode Island. I know the DeWolf—one of the DeWolfs wrote the alma mater of Brown.

KATRINA BROWNE: The—so, I’m Browne with an E, so it is a different Brown. But, yeah, James DeWolf, who was one of the more prominent slave traders in the DeWolf family, apprenticed with John Brown, who was a slave trader, and they both ended up in Congress and worked together to help preserve the slave trade, to help protect the Rhode Island slave trade and all kind of—you know, in cahoots even with President Thomas Jefferson around some of that. It’s a longer story. But in any case, the economy of Rhode Island was steeped in the slave trade. It was actually—it usually shocks people to hear that Rhode Island was the leading slave-trading state in the country, you know, not South Carolina or Virginia. So—and that leads to the founding of the university and some of the early funds for Brown University.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting that Ruth Simmons, who was the former president of Brown, great-granddaughter of slaves, first African-American president of any Ivy League university, also—and I want to bring Craig Wilder back into this conversation—commissioned the first Ivy League study of her university—


AMY GOODMAN: —Brown University’s connection to slavery. Professor Wilder?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think this is actually a critical moment in American history. And throughout the process of sort of talking about the book, one of the things I’ve constantly returned to is her decision in 2003 to commission a study of Brown’s relationship to the slave trade. And this happened for a number of reasons. You know, there was a blow-up at Yale at its 300th anniversary about Yale’s relationship to the slave trade, which became quite controversial. That also helped spark rumors about other institutions. And the public secret of Brown’s relationship became even more pronounced and lively when she became president, when the first non-white president of an Ivy League institution took office. It was tremendous—it took tremendous courage to make that decision. The report in 2006 is an extraordinary example of moral leadership, of how we actually get this conversation happening.

And as Ms. Browne was saying about the documentary, one of the things I think is fascinating about both President Simmons’ decision, the subsequent report and the public reaction to it is that much of the hostility and fear that people had anticipated, the problems that they had anticipated when the report and the commission were first announced, actually didn’t really materialize. And if you look at the recent history of the way in which we have engaged with the question of slavery in America’s past—the Brown report, documentaries like Traces of the Trade, the New York Historical Society’s exhibit on slavery in New York, the anniversary of the end of the slave trade in England—one of the things I found fascinating is that it provides extraordinary evidence that the public is ready for a difficult conversation, that in many ways we tend to underestimate the capacity of people to really deal with, and their desire to deal with, these problems.

When her cousin, I believe it is, in the documentary was saying that—you know, reacting to the slave-trading port and this material culture of the slave trade that’s surrounding him, one of the things I like to remember—remind people is that the things that white Americans find difficult and horrific, that generate feelings of guilt and fear, are also actually troubling and horrific and difficult for black Americans. And in that very fact, there’s the possibility of a real, genuine and useful conversation about slavery and American society. I think we’re moving toward that. We’re moving there slowly, but we are getting there. And I think the public is actually ahead of the rest of us at times. I think the media tends to be more conservative and afraid of these discussions than the public are. And if you look at the tremendous, you know, crowds that showed up for those exhibits, you actually see evidence of that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Craig Steven Wilder, his new book is Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. He’s a professor of American history at MIT. I also want to thank Katrina Browne, producer and director of the documentary, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.

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