Tag Archive | "Georgette Grier-Key"

Family’s Past in Slave Trade To Be Explored in Shelter Island Film Screening

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Dain, Jim and James Perry at James DeWolf’s family cemetery in Bristol, Rhode Island.   Allie Humenuk photo

Dain, Jim and James Perry at James DeWolf’s family cemetery in Bristol, Rhode Island. Allie Humenuk photo


By Stephen J. Kotz

Katrina Browne was working on a master’s degree in theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkley in 1999 when she stumbled upon a dark chapter in her own family’s history.

A descendent of the DeWolf family who were pillars of society in Bristol, Rhode Island, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Ms. Browne learned by reading a booklet compiled for family members by grandmother that her wealthy ancestors, who she knew as seafaring merchants with a bit of a dodgy past,  had actually made their fortune off the slave trade and, in fact, were among the biggest slave traders in the country.

That uncomfortable knowledge set her off on an eight-year journey that resulted in the making of the film, “Tracing the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” which followed a trip Ms. Browne and nine other family members made to West Africa and Cuba to learn more about the slave trade and come to terms with their family history.

“No one realized they brought over 10,000 Africans to the country in chains,” she says in the film. “A half million of their descendants could be alive today.”

On Friday, in a joint program commemorating Black History Month, Sylvester Manor and the Shelter Island Public Library will sponsor a screening of the film at the library at 7 p.m. Following the 51-minute documentary, Ms. Browne, her brother Whitney Browne, who helped with pre-production work, and Georgette Grier-Key, the director of the Eastville Community Historic Society will lead what is being called a “facilitated dialogue” in which audience members will be encouraged to discuss slavery and its far reaching and continuing impact on race relations in this country.

On Saturday, at 10 a.m., there will be a community remembrance in the “Burying Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor,”  where slaves, indentured servants, and other African-Americans were buried. Taking part in the event at the graveyard will be Sandra Arnold, the founding director of the Burial Data Base Project of Enslaved African-Americans, which is attempting to locate and identify those buried in slave cemeteries across the country.

Ms. Browne’s film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and later that year reached a national audience of 1.5 million viewers when it was broadcast on PBS’s Point of View series. From there, Ms. Browne said, it took on a life of its own, with frequent requests for screenings from museums, historical societies, and libraries.

It even led family members to found the Tracing Center, a nonprofit organization that Ms. Browne served as executive director of until earlier this year when she turned those duties over to one of her cousins, James Perry, who also took part in the family trip to Africa and Cuba.

According to its website, the Tracing Center sponsors programs to “foster awareness, dialogue, and engagement by inviting people to explore race today through the lens of forgotten history.

Ms. Browne’s film recounts how Bristol, which is well known for its long-running Fourth of July parade, seemed blissfully unaware of the DeWolfs’ role, over three generations, in the slave trade. Linden Place, the three-story family mansion, which the viewer learns was paid for from a single year’s earnings, is now a museum and catering hall. On a visit to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in the town, Ms. Browne, who was raised in Philadelphia, says in the movie, “It seems the DeWolfs were the founding fathers. They were everywhere. They even paid for the stained glass.”

The DeWolfs were no different than many other Northern businessmen who were drawn to the lucrative slave trade, although they clearly went all in, selling shares in their ships to townspeople, founding their own insurance company to cover the risk, and even starting their own bank.

Taking part in the “Triangle Trade,” the DeWolfs shipped rum to West Africa, where it was traded  for slaves. The slaves, in turn, were shipped to Cuba, where they were sold at auction or put to work on one of the family’s five plantations, where sugar cane was grown to make molasses, which, in turn, was used make more rum.

One of the DeWolfs in a journal entry dated September 11, 1806, reported selling 121 slaves at auction in Havana for a total of $36,300, more than $550,000 in today’s dollars.

“She pulled off the Band-Aid and exposed this history,” said Whitney Browne, who will also take part in the Friday’s post-film discussion. “Over three generations, it was the family business. Learning about it is not something that is always easy to talk about.”

“I’m hoping it creates a dialogue that goes beyond the film,” said Ms. Grier-Key of the Eastville Community Historical Society. “This conversation needs to continue. Let’s peel back the layers and see what’s there. A lot of the problems today have very deep roots.”

Sylvester Manor and the Shelter Island Public Library will host a screening of “Tracing the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 21 at the library on North Ferry Road on Shelter Island, followed by a group discussion with the filmmakers, and Georgette Grier-Key of the Eastville Community Historic Society. On Saturday, February 22, a community remembrance in the “Burying Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor” will take place at 10 a.m. For more information, call 749-0042.


A Conversation With: Georgette Grier-Key

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Convo Grier-Key

By Claire Walla

Georgette Grier-Key, an East End painter, arts administrator and cultural historian who’s now putting her skills to work as the first ever director of the Eastville Community Historical Society.

What originally brought you to Sag Harbor?

I am an artist first. So, naturally I gravitated to the East End because this is where our art center is on Long Island.

How have you been involved in the art community here?

I have a bachelors degree in visual arts, but my mother always said: You’re going to starve! [laughs] So, I went to get my masters in art education. When I finished school, I said to myself, what am I going to do with this? We’re always taught to go to school and get a job, but I was taught: do what you’re passionate about. I’m passionate about art, and I’m passionate about history. Now, I’m really fulfilling my dream of doing what I want to be doing. I’m in a doctorate program and my interest is cultural institutions, particularly museums and historical organizations and how prepared leaders are to lead these institutions.

This is perfect, then!

It really is. And I’m still entwined in the art world. I’ve been a volunteer at the Parrish Art Museum, I work with the Huntington Arts Council, I do grant outreach and I’m also at Guild Hall.

Now you’re also the first director of the Eastville Community Historical Society. When was the organization established?

The cultural center started in 1981 and was chartered in 1986. As I understand it, there was talk about making a historic district and one of our residents, our historian Kathy Tucker, took notice. She asked to have the village’s historic lines pushed back to include the community of Eastville because St. David’s A.M.E. Zion Church was here. It’s still at its original location, and is one of the oldest churches in Sag Harbor. [It dates back to 1840.] The community has organized from that point on.

What are some other aspects of this area’s history that are important to point out?

One of the things we also talk about is the presence of African American and Native American whalers, which is a big thing. Recently we had a student come from Brown University to talk to us about some of the history and we were able to show her some of the tomb stones we have deeded to us from St. David’s A.M.E. Zion. A lot of the Native American whalers are buried here.

So, now that you’re in office, what are some of the initiatives you will be spearheading for the historical society?

The biggest initiative is we’re starting a social media campaign. I’m a generation X-er so I grew up with computers in school. But here, this is a big feat: to be online, to create a website, to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account … even to have a web store on our website.

Is it difficult to get a historical society up-to-par with modern technology?

I think I had the board behind me, but what really sealed the deal was that we had a Facebook message from a direct descendant from Lippman and Rose Johnson [who owned the house that now serves as the society’s headquarter]. He sent us a message via Facebook. That sealed the deal for them, because it let them see how important it is to be out there.

Does the historical society have any bigger plans for programs in the future?

At the time, it doesn’t seem feasible for us to have one of our bigger events: the fish fry. For bigger events like that, the board used to be able to do everything in-house. [But now that the event has expanded], it’s like cooking potato salad for 400 people! Being insular is not necessarily a bad thing, but, being insular, you become self-sufficient. We’re looking to diversify our funding streams, and usually for events like [the fish fry] you can get a sponsor to underwrite the whole thing. We want to be able to do things that the organization had been able to do in the past. Previously we had programs in schools. But, because of No Child Left Behind, teachers began to focus more on course work. We want to — even if it’s here on our site — start talking to children about the heritage here.

Working at a place like this, which strives to preserve the past, how do you also ensure that today’s events and issues are getting documented? ?

I think the best way right now is to just tell the stories. It’s part of our tradition — story-telling keeps it alive. If you don’t have external control over [wider forms of communication] — whether it’s print media, or television — often your story doesn’t get heard. So, it’s very important even today to keep the tradition of story-telling going.

So, what stories are you telling today about Eastville?

I think the story that needs to be told about Eastville is its resiliency. That’s the story that we want to talk about. Before May 4 [when I was hired as director], this organization was 100 percent volunteerism for the last 30 years, which is amazing considering the accomplishments that they’ve been able to get: we’re a new York State chartered organization and we’re the first African American or minority society that was established in Suffolk County. I think our history is not being told in schools, it’s not being told in text books. And [as we question] what’s being written in the text books, who’s writing the text books, and how obsolete the African-Americans in this country are… We can’t rely on someone else to tell the story. We have to tell the story. That’s why all historical societies are important: to tell the stories that are germane to their organization.