The slave trade: A US family legacy

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They say that the apple doesn't roll far from the tree, but in Tom DeWolf's case, maybe the apple tree was on top of a steep hill.

Two hundred years ago, the DeWolf name was synonymous with the New England slave trade. Today, Tom DeWolf and other DeWolf descendants are rapidly making a name for themselves in the area of race reconciliation.

Mr. DeWolf author of 'Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in US History' will be in Bermuda this week to give speeches and racial dialogue workshops for the local group Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (CURB).

  • The cover of Tom DeWolf's book.

    The cover of Tom DeWolf's book.

  • Tom DeWolf, author of 'Inheriting the Trade' sits in contemplation.

    Tom DeWolf, author of 'Inheriting the Trade' sits in contemplation.


They say that the apple doesn't roll far from the tree, but in Tom DeWolf's case, maybe the apple tree was on top of a steep hill.

Two hundred years ago, the DeWolf name was synonymous with the New England slave trade. Today, Tom DeWolf and other DeWolf descendants are rapidly making a name for themselves in the area of race reconciliation.

Mr. DeWolf author of 'Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in US History' will be in Bermuda this week to give speeches and racial dialogue workshops for the local group Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (CURB).

His appearance follows last year's visit by his cousin Katrina Browne, director of a film called: 'Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep North'. In the documentary film, Ms Browne gathered together a handful of DeWolf descendants who were interested in coming to terms with the DeWolf family history and involvement in the slave trade. The project took the group on an emotional journey from Rhode Island in the United States to Ghana, Africa and Cuba. Tom DeWolf was one of the DeWolf descendants involved in the project, and he later wrote 'Inheriting the Trade' about the experience.

"I decided to write the book before we went on the journey," said Mr. DeWolf. "But I did not tell anyone. It was a year after our initial journey before I told anyone that I was writing a book."

But he said, 'Inheriting the Trade' is not meant to be the book version of his cousin's movie, 'Traces of the Trade'. Early on, he and Ms Browne decided that they would not collaborate on the book. Ms Browne did not see a copy of the book until it was completed. The resulting book is part memoir, and part history book. Mr. DeWolf thought the book differed from the movie mainly in terms of perspective.

"I grew up on the West Coast in the California culture, and Katrina grew up in New England and Philadelphia," he said. "Compared to the West Coast, New England is almost like a different country. The book is my version of our journey together. There is obviously overlap because we are on the same journey."

He said that one advantage of the book over the documentary film, was that he could deeply explore experiences and conversations that were not filmed, or were cut from the film.

"I was in places where cameras did not go," he said. "The book explores conversations I had with people when the camera was not recording. When you talk about the conclusions, Katrina and I are mostly on the same page. Ultimately, we both have a strong belief in the need for healing and honest dialogue. The book looks at different concepts of what the problem is and how we might heal from it. It looks at challenges we face."

He said the experience of learning more about his family's past taught him about parts of America's history that were often glossed over or ignored by school textbooks when he was growing up.

"The real advantage we have today is there is so much more information available," said Mr. DeWolf. "There is more information about the history of the world from a variety of perspectives. The information available is no longer just from the perspective of the wealthy white men who ran the show everywhere.

"The other thing I find really useful is that there is so much more info about how our brains work. If I am prejudiced I can feel guilty. I can build walls and not have this conversation or other, but everyone has prejudices. Once you understand how the brain operates, you can be more aware of it. Those instant reactions from the oldest part of the brain, don't have to rule everything.

"A lot of white people in the United States have avoided this conversation for a long time," said Mr. DeWolf. "But there are also a lot of aspects of race that black folks don't talk about. White and black people often don't talk with each other about these issues." But he said that his speeches at churches, conferences, museums and libraries across the United States, often seemed to break the ice, and allow people to talk about it, often for the first time.

"It gives people permission to talk about issues that are often essentially uncomfortable ones. Most people I encounter really want to talk about these issues and don't know how to get started. Speaking for myself, it has been a completely liberating journey."

Many people in Bermuda will be familiar with Mr. DeWolf's book, as this year, CURB asked its members to read Mr. DeWolf's book as part of its 'Big Read' programme.

"Tom DeWolf's presence in Bermuda will enable those who have read the book or seen the film to pose their questions to him personally," said Lynne Winfield, president of CURB.

Those who missed last year's viewings of 'Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep North' have a special opportunity to watch it on CITV for the entire month of October three times a day.

"The powerful feedback we received from the April screenings convinced members of 'CURB' that it was important to bring it back to Bermuda…and this time we wanted everyone to have the opportunity to watch this deeply moving and educational film," said Ms Winfield.

Mr. DeWolf will be facilitating showings of a shortened educational version of the documentary at CedarBridge Academy; Bermuda High School, Somersfield Academy and Dellwood Middle School from October 18 to 21.

"After the film we will be having a conversation with the students about how they feel about what they have seen," said Mr. DeWolf. "We talk about how race affects their lives and we have a conversation about whatever comes up. It is very open ended."

CURB will also be holding two public meetings where Mr. DeWolf will present and dialogue with the audience on his experiences. The first will be a presentation held at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI) on October 18 at 7 p.m. and will be specifically for a white audience, and the second will be an open public meeting on October 20 at 7 p.m. at the Cathedral Hall, and will be focused on an interactive dialogue.

For more information on Tom DeWolf and "Inheriting the Trade" please go to www.inheritingthetrade.com where information and pictures can be downloaded. For more information about CURB go to their website at www.curb.bm or telephone 505-0112.

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