Posted on February 5, 2008

The DeWolf Family Burden

Paul Davis, Providence Journal, February 3, 2008

For much of his life, Thomas Norman DeWolf successfully avoided the thorny issues of race, inequality and white privilege.

When blacks rioted in Los Angeles in the ‘60s, he left a troubled public school for an all-white private one. He graduated from a Christian college and moved to Bend, Ore., a town that is “95 percent white.”


“Everyone has secrets,” says DeWolf in his powerful new memoir, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History.The DeWolfs had a big one: From 1769 to 1820, the clan’s fathers, sons and grandsons trafficked in human beings. They sailed ships filled with rum and guns from Bristol to West Africa, where they purchased African captives on the coast. The captives were then shipped to plantations that the DeWolfs owned in Cuba or were sold at auction in such ports as Havana and Charleston, S.C.

The family owned 47 ships and transported 10,000 Africans into New World slavery. That represented about 60 percent of all slave voyages from Bristol.

When the United States outlawed the practice in 1808, the DeWolfs broke the law and shipped slaves from Africa to Cuba.

Business was good. With money from the trade and privateering, the DeWolfs opened a bank, an insurance company and a rum distillery on the Bristol waterfront. By one account, a quarter of the town’s residents did business directly with the family. In 1812, the DeWolfs owned more ships than the U.S. Navy.

They weren’t alone. As scholars have shown, Rhode Islanders, many of them in Newport and Providence, financed more than 1,000 slave voyages and transported more than 100,000 Africans across the terrible Middle Passage.

FOR YEARS THE story of the North’s involvement in the trade has been ignored, played down or forgotten, a victim of what one historian calls “Northern amnesia.”

DeWolf’s book, published last month by Beacon Press, is part of a growing effort to recover that past.

Much of the book chronicles the making of Katrina Browne’s documentary film, the similarly titled Traces of the Trade, a Story from the Deep North.


The film, which has been shown in Rhode Island several times, won national attention last month when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.


Gathering in 2001, the DeWolf descendants, dubbed “The Family of Ten,” watch from the sloping lawn of Linden Place, a mansion built by George DeWolf with money made from the slave trade and his Cuban plantation, Arca de Noe, or Noah’s Ark.

They examine slave shackles from the estate of Capt. James DeWolf, a U.S. senator charged with murdering a slave. And they pore over passages from family letters, including one dated July 4, 1795: “. . . bought nine prime slaves, one woman and eight men. Paid for them tobacco, rum, hats, bread, mackerel. . . .”

The emerging picture bears little resemblance to the romanticized family portrait that the cousins grew up with. The DeWolfs, they were told, were “upright Yankees” and leading citizens—ministers and bishops, philanthropists and professors, artists and architects.


Dain Perry, a financial planner from Boston, imagines a sign on a local street announcing, “You are entering Bristol, the historic center of U.S. slave trading.” Another cousin finds it “chilling” that her ancestors beat and whipped people.

THE GROUP grapples with another burden, too.

Browne asks them to read an article on white privilege, defined by author Peggy McIntosh as “an invisible packet of unearned assets,” a weightless knapsack jammed with “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”


“This is heavier than I expected,” [DeWolf] says. “The impact of race is so much greater than I ever realized. . . . If I were black, I think I’d be angry—not only at what took place over the past few hundred years, but at white people who don’t have a clue what’s going on today.”

Before they leave for Africa, the group hears from Keith Stokes, a black historian and executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce. “Race relations are difficult to talk about,” he warns. But don’t forget, he adds: 11.5 million Africans came to the New World as slaves. They worked in New England ports and on Southern plantations.


IN GHANA, things begin to unravel.

Reeling from oppressive heat and pointed questions, the cousins bicker. Tempers fray.

At first, their collective guilt is assuaged by two professors at the University of Ghana. Every civilization practiced slavery, they say. And African chiefs sold slaves to the European traders. But the trade, they add, was driven by European demand.


In Bristol, the cousins had been nearly invisible. But in Ghana they arrive during Panafest, a huge celebration of African independence and culture. Some of their efforts to reach out were rebuffed.


At one point the family tours the dank rooms of two of Africa’s largest slave forts. At Cape Coast Castle, they crowd into a dungeon for a scene in Browne’s film. Suddenly, the camera lights fail and the room turns black, suffocating, airless.

DeWolf can see nothing as he sits inside a space that once held up to 200 men.


DeWolf, of course, is not a slave. For a moment, he feels terror. But then he realizes he can never know the real horror of the place, or comprehend the loss and despair felt by millions of African men, women and children ripped from their homes.


“I feel worse, more alone than I have ever felt in my life. Yet I am only scratching the surface of the scar.”

IN CUBA, the group visits abandoned slave quarters and former sugar mills. “You should not feel the weight of history,” counsels Natalia Bolivar, an Afro-Cuban scholar. “You’re not living in the Inquisition.”


The DeWolfs, they learn, gave their plantations optimistic names: New Hope, Good Hope, Mount Hope. The slaves did not share in that optimism. In 1821, two ran away from one of the plantations. After they were caught, they were placed in heavy irons for four days and given “twenty-four lashes on the naked bottom. . . .”

When the trip ends, the family meets for a final time in Bristol to answer some tough questions. What do they owe society? What should they do? Can racism be erased?


The book and film come at a time when both race and gender have surfaced in the presidential campaign. DeWolf tackles both in his book, along with religious intolerance.

Although the book serves as a behind-the-scenes look at the film, it also offers something the film does not: a long deep look at one man’s interior journey. Mildly interested in the trip at first, DeWolf charts his every discomfort as he confronts harsh truths about his family, America and himself. At one point, he holds his head in his hands.


Seven years later, the cousins are part of an effort to reach a racial conciliation through public discussions and education. DeWolf is convinced that four things must happen first: awareness of the issue, an apology, some kind of reparations, and forgiveness from the harmed party. Legislators in New Jersey, Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia have apologized or expressed “profound regret” for their role in slavery and the slave trade. Rhode Island should too, says DeWolf.