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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.