Family Roots

Family Roots
Image courtesy of Beacon Press

Author Thomas DeWolf shares lessons from a life-changing journey into the history of his family, his country and the transatlantic slave trade in Inheriting the Trade, a 2011 United Methodist Women Reading Program book.

Thomas DeWolf grew up in Pomona, Calif., and moved to Oregon to attend Northwest Christian College and the University Oregon, but he always knew his family roots were back east in Rhode Island. In 2001 when distant cousin Katrina Browne began work on a documentary about the family, Mr. DeWolf discovered those New England roots included slave traders who trafficked at least 10,000 human beings from their homes in Africa to lives of chattel slavery in the “New World.” That year, Mr. DeWolf joined Ms. Browne and eight other relatives on a 5-week journey retracing their ancestors’ travels along a transatlantic slave trade route from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba. 

Mr. DeWolf learned things about U.S. history that he hadn’t heard in school. Things like, not only did the North have slavery for more than 200 years, but the vast majority of U.S. trafficking of Africans was done by Northerners. Half of all North American slave-trading voyages originated from Rhode Island. Mr. DeWolf’s ancestor, U.S. Senator James DeWolf, curried favor with President Thomas Jefferson to continue trafficking humans after the practice was outlawed. When James DeWolf died in 1837, he was reportedly the second richest man in the United States. 

Thomas DeWolf shares this life-changing experience and lessons learned about racial justice in Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, a 2011 United Methodist Women Reading Program book in the Nurturing for Community category.

response recently spoke with Mr. DeWolf.

Q. Why’d you accept your cousin’s invitation to journey into your family’s slave trading past?

A. Interestingly, she didn’t approach me; I approached her. She never heard of me. My cousin got invited. His father and her grandmother were siblings. My wife and I met Katrina, and we spent two to three hours together. The more I learned, the more I felt it was a powerful compelling story. I had heard of this guy who was a privateer and U.S. senator in run-on sentences, but I didn’t know the family story…. Part of it, for me, was the power of discovery, learning more about this family.

Q. Who were you writing to in Inheriting the Trade?

A. My intended audience was white people, in particular white men, with the intention of inviting people to educate themselves about how deep and systemic racism can be, and how much power I as a white man have regardless of my class compared to others and people of color.

My intention in writing the book was to use the example of what my cousins and I experienced as an invitation to readers to explore their own lives. … Over the past seven years, I’ve learned how closely racism, religious intolerance, sexism, and so many other “isms” are connected. I’ve tried to show this connection in Inheriting the Trade so readers can examine their own lives to become more aware of how we walk in the world, the importance of recognizing our kinship with each other, as equals, and the critical need in these troubled times to truly develop compassion for each other, especially with those who differ from us.

Q. What was your most powerful moment in Ghana?

A. There were many such moments, especially for me, as I had never traveled internationally before. The interracial group conversations we participated in, the ceremonies we attended, standing at the Door of No Return, and other sites we visited that were connected to the slave trade, and which our ancestors had also been to two centuries earlier, had a strong impact on me.

But the most powerful moment was when we entered one of the male dungeons beneath Cape Coast Castle — a 450-square foot stone cell that held up to 200 enslaved African men at a time — and the battery pack for the camera lights died and plunged us into pitch black darkness. There was no electricity in the dungeon, and rather than turn on our flashlights, Katrina invited us to wait quietly in the darkness. So we sat in the dark while a film crewmember went to get a replacement battery. Ten minutes felt like an hour as I imagined what it must’ve been like to be confined in this space 200 years ago.

I’ve never felt so close to utter despair and hopelessness in my life, knowing, of course, that the lights would soon come on and I’d walk out, which wasn’t the case for the people who were once imprisoned there. That moment shifted my consciousness more than any other on our entire journey.

Q. You said you didn’t learn much about U.S. slavery in school. Arizona recently voted to ban the teaching of ethnic history courses in public schools and the Texas school board voted to change history textbooks to water down U.S. slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

A. Look at who’s in charge. Most of the people in charge look like me: white men and women. You don’t see people of color on school boards wanting to stop ethnic studies in Arizona, same in Texas. Mississippi recently adopted a curriculum to teach about the Civil Rights Movement as part of the official history of the state. We’re in 2010. …

People get really uncomfortable with how you are going to teach about slavery. How are you going to teach about systemic racism that continues today? How are you going to teach without offending white people in power who can put the kibosh on everything? How do you make them not afraid?

Not using “the truth shall set you free” as a trite cliché, but ... in fact if we have the courage to really want to know the truth and acknowledge and do what’s required to set things right, to want what’s best for all concerned, that’s where the possibility of freedom really does exist — and it really does liberate.

Q. You say you’re not particularly religious, but in the group discussions you write about in your book, you are the one who quotes Jesus saying, “It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.”

A. One of the prominent features in all of these strong slave ports we visited is the church built above the dungeon. The Bible and Christian faith were used to justify enslavement: “We’re going to make them Christian, baptize them so they’re no longer heathens.” … I will hold people accountable for using their religious beliefs to abuse others …when I see what people do in this world in the name of Islam, Christianity…when I see treatment of Palestinians…when we act in oppressive, unloving and unjust ways.

One beautiful thing is that my roommate on the journey was an Episcopal priest. He and I are best of friends today. I work with Christian people studying trauma healing.

Q. Doesn’t rehashing the subject of slavery keep us stuck in the past? Why can’t everyone just get over it?

A. Many people of African descent that we spoke with during our journey say that the reason they can’t “just get over it” is because it isn’t over. In general, there exists today a profound lack of trust between white people and people of color. White people typically aren’t even aware of it, or else we do our best to ignore it. This is our training, our birthright.

In Cape Coast, we met with Professor Kofi Anyidoho from the University of Ghana. He encouraged us to wrestle with history because in order to understand where we are we need to understand how we got here. I was blown away by one particular statement he made, and I use part of this quote as the title for one of the chapters in Inheriting the Trade. He said, “Slavery is a tragic accident in which people today are still bleeding to death. Slavery is the living wound under a patchwork of scars. The only hope of healing is to be willing to break through the scars to finally clean the wound properly and begin the healing.”

I believe this is the work of every person who believes in liberty, equality and grace. Reckoning with events in history that have ripped people apart is how we can clean centuries-old wounds and heal together.

Q. Many white people will say this has nothing to do with them. Their ancestors didn’t own or trade slaves. They came after the end of the Civil War. They’d say this isn’t their problem.

A. I recognize that many families have ancestors who suffered to scratch their way toward the American Dream, including other branches of my own family. But the fact remains that people with white skin have always been able to rise toward prosperity in this country more easily and rapidly than people with dark skin. And it continues. Look at almost any significant social indicator — wealth, infant mortality rates, the likelihood of imprisonment, homicide rates, having health insurance, access to housing, employment and higher education, and so on — and Blacks fall on the negative side of the dividing line. This is a legacy of slavery, and it is systemic. If we truly aspire to live up to the ideals established by our nation’s founders — democracy, equality, and the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — then we have a lot of work to do. I’m sure most people would agree that inequality harms its victims. But it also harms those of us who are privileged to be on the upper tier of the dividing line. The harm is different, but it exists. This is everyone’s problem, and everyone can contribute to, and benefit from, the process of healing.


Posted or updated: 9/30/2010 11:00:00 PM