Legacy of Slavery in the Family

What would you do if you were white and discovered a legacy of slavery, which many of us did whether we know it or not? That is exactly the question Katrina Browne, Thomas DeWolf, and several of their relatives confronted. In the preface to the book Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, Thomas DeWolf explains that, “It’s easy to agree that slavery prior to the Civil War was wrong. It’s much more difficult for whites to reflect on the systematic racism that lingers today,” including huge disparities in access to education, housing, jobs, health care, and legal justice. By examining their legacy of slavery in the family, Browne, DeWolf and other members of their family and network hope that other whites will be able to confront legacies of inherited racism, and that both Blacks and whites will be able to heal.
Traces of the Trade

Traces of the Trade

The work this family is doing is immensely important. Browne and DeWolf detail their journey in Inheriting the Trade, and the companion DVD, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. The journey was initiated when Katrina Browne came to realize through a family history written by her grandmother that her family, whom she had grown up learning to be proud of, had been very active slave traders. She contacted other family members, organizing those who wanted to participate in a profoundly impactful journey from Rhode Island to the slave forts in Ghana, to the sugar plantations in Cuba. Through this journey, documented in both the book and the DVD, audiences learn not only about the slave trade itself, but poignantly about how DeWolf descendants dealt with learning their horrific legacy.

Since publication of these works, the family and colleagues have organized several venues to raise white awareness of legacies of racism, and to build an active network of descendants of both slaveholders and slaves, working together to challenge racism. Coming to the Table offers an internet platform for people to connect. Anyone who is a descendent of slaves or slaveholders can ask to join; I’m a member. More active at present is Coming to the Table’s Facebook group, which features discussions of racism today as well as yesterday, members’ publications about their own stories, upcoming events, and so forth.
The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery takes this work “on the road,” so to speak. As described on its website, its “mission is to create greater awareness of the entire nation’s complicity in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade and to inspire acknowledgment, dialogue and active response to this history and its many legacies.” The Center offers screenings of Traces of the Trade, speakers, facilitated dialogues, workplace trainings on race and privilege, as well as various anti-racist discussion guides and guides for viewing the film.

With Sharon Morgan, Thomas DeWolf recently co-authored the book Gather at the Table, a dialog across race between a descendant of a slave and descendant of a slaveholder. This book aims to prompt national dialogue about racism and work toward healing. The authors (who met through Coming to the Table) spent three years traveling together through 27 states examining racism’s history and current manifestations. This award-winning book is based on that journey.

If you wonder why I believe it is important to unpack the histories of our families in a social context that takes account of racism, class, and patriarchy, I point toward the work of the DeWolf descendants as an example of what can be done. We make tomorrow’s history through our actions today. But if we do not know our own history, if we haven’t come to terms with it, the history we make may end up reproducing rather than changing injustices. 


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