Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U. S. History

Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U. S. History

by Thomas Norman DeWolf
     
 

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In 2001, at forty-seven, Thomas DeWolf was astounded to discover that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in American history, responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans to the Americas. His infamous ancestor, U.S. senator James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, curried favor with President Thomas Jefferson to continue in the trade

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Overview

In 2001, at forty-seven, Thomas DeWolf was astounded to discover that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in American history, responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans to the Americas. His infamous ancestor, U.S. senator James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, curried favor with President Thomas Jefferson to continue in the trade after it was outlawed. When James DeWolf died in 1837, he was the second-richest man in America.

When Katrina Browne, Thomas DeWolf's cousin, learned about their family's history, she resolved to confront it head-on, producing and directing a documentary feature film, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. The film is an official selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Inheriting the Trade is Tom DeWolf's powerful and disarmingly honest memoir of the journey in which ten family members retraced the steps of their ancestors and uncovered the hidden history of New England and the other northern states.

Their journey through the notorious Triangle Trade-from New England to West Africa to Cuba-proved life-altering, forcing DeWolf to face the horrors of slavery directly for the first time. It also inspired him to contend with the complicated legacy that continues to affect black and white Americans, Africans, and Cubans today.

Inheriting the Trade reveals that the North's involvement in slavery was as common as the South's. Not only were black people enslaved in the North for over two hundred years, but the vast majority of all slave trading in America was done by northerners. Remarkably, half of all North American voyages involved in the slave trade originated in Rhode Island, and all the northern states benefited.

With searing candor, DeWolf tackles both the internal and external challenges of his journey-writing frankly about feelings of shame, white male privilege, the complicity of churches, America's historic amnesia regarding slavery-and our nation's desperate need for healing. An urgent call for meaningful and honest dialogue, Inheriting the Trade illuminates a path toward a more hopeful future and provides a persuasive argument that the legacy of slavery isn't merely a southern issue but an enduring American one.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In the summer of 2001, Katrina Browne led nine distant family members on their own triangular passage as she made a documentary film (Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North) about their DeWolf ancestors, "the largest slave-trading dynasty in early America"-who transported 10,000 Africans to America and the Caribbean between 1769 and 1820. DeWolf, one of Browne's cousins, traces the journey in this soul-searching memoir, beginning in Bristol, R.I., the hub of the late-18th-century trade, and continuing to Ghana, Cuba and back to New England. At each station of the trip, the "Family of Ten" visits historic sites, and distinguished historians address the group about aspects of the slave trade. DeWolf's account gains immediacy as he reports these presentations and the ensuing group discussions, along with their personal struggles to come to terms with an ignominious family history and his own sharp learning curve. His narrative, however, bogs down toward its conclusion in an irrelevant account of allegations of sexual harassment made against him and a digressive though thought-provoking discussion of reparations for slavery. Nevertheless, DeWolf promotes conversation about "truth of the past and its impact on the present." (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

The legacy of slavery in the United States has been explored in numerous ways, but few books have carefully examined how slavery, and slave trading, affected a specific white family down the generations, from Rhode Island slave traders to their descendants. This book is DeWolf's memoir of his journey with nine distant cousins to research the history of those ancestors who were major players in the American slave trade. The cousins traveled to Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba to investigate their family's role in the "triangle trade" and to discuss the legacy of slavery with black and white people in each place. One of the cousins, Katrina Browne, produced and directed a documentary film on their journey, Traces of the Trade. The history here-of the profitable Rhode Island trade in slaves-is interesting, but the book's most powerful message is DeWolf's observation that it was only his unusual family connection that made him wake up and notice that he has always benefited from white privilege, however unconsciously. While he is not personally responsible for perpetuating slavery, as his ancestors were, he does consider himself personally responsible for working to heal the multigenerational damage caused by slavery. Heartily recommended for public, high school, and college libraries, especially those seeking literature examining different perspectives about racism, slavery, and economic history.
—Emily-Jane Dawson

School Library Journal

In the summer of 2001, Katrina Browne led nine distant family members on their own triangular passage as she made a documentary film (Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North) about their DeWolf ancestors, "the largest slave-trading dynasty in early America"-who transported 10,000 Africans to America and the Caribbean between 1769 and 1820. DeWolf, one of Browne's cousins, traces the journey in this soul-searching memoir, beginning in Bristol, R.I., the hub of the late-18th-century trade, and continuing to Ghana, Cuba and back to New England. At each station of the trip, the "Family of Ten" visits historic sites, and distinguished historians address the group about aspects of the slave trade. DeWolf's account gains immediacy as he reports these presentations and the ensuing group discussions, along with their personal struggles to come to terms with an ignominious family history and his own sharp learning curve. His narrative, however, bogs down toward its conclusion in an irrelevant account of allegations of sexual harassment made against him and a digressive though thought-provoking discussion of reparations for slavery. Nevertheless, DeWolf promotes conversation about "truth of the past and its impact on the present." (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Memoir of the author's journey, with a group of cousins, to retrace the route of the infamous "triangle trade" that made their ancestors rich. In 2001, 46-year-old DeWolf was a writer and public official living in a mostly white Oregon county. He describes himself as largely unconcerned with race and racism. Then, the bombshell: Contacted by Katrina Browne, a distant cousin from Rhode Island, he learned he was descended from a family that included, across several generations, some of the most notorious slave traders in American history. James DeWolf (1764-1837), one of five brothers dispatching slave ships from the busy port of Bristol, R.I., epitomized the family's immersion in slaving; he became a U.S. senator and was estimated to be the second-richest man in America at his death. At the urging of Browne, who was confronting her heritage by making a documentary film, the author and eight other cousins gathered with her in Bristol and journeyed as a group to Ghana, on Africa's west coast, and then to Cuba, following the historic path that brought molasses from Cuba to be made into rum in New England, then traded in African ports for human beings. DeWolf's journal of the trip unveils some mixed feelings among his cousins; for himself, it sparked a life-changing awakening to a world of regret and shame. Intense conversations with black tourists in Ghana, for example, brought the realization that he had never talked this way with African-Americans at home. Racial reconciliation is imperative, he resolves, even if it requires reparations distributed to those "stuck at the bottom."His conclusions will be controversial, but DeWolf's intimate confrontation with white America's "unearnedprivilege" sears the conscience.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780807072813
Publisher:
Beacon
Publication date:
01/02/2008
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

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