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Documenting ugly history

Film describes Northern family’s role in promoting and profiting from slavery
by Nan Cobbey
Section: Art & Soul
6/1/2006

Northerners like to think they bear less guilt than Southerners for our nation’s ugly history with slavery and the slave trade. They are dead wrong, according to Katrina Browne, a committed Episcopalian from Boston.

Browne learned that the hard way. Now she’s spreading the word to compatriots, North and South, in a manner she hopes will help to heal what she describes as our country’s greatest wound.

Brown, 37, has created a documentary film to tell the story of her ancestors from New England, to spell out the legacy white Americans have inherited from the history of slavery.

The DeWolf family of Rhode Island was the largest slave-trading family in early America. More than 10,000 Africans – kidnapped, chained, beaten – made the hellish middle passage across the Atlantic in the holds of DeWolf-owned ships. Over the course of three generations, from 1769 to 1820, 47 of these ships made runs, building trade and the family’s fortune.

Katrina Browne is refusing to side-step that unsavory history. Instead she is facing it head on in a very public way … with her 80-minute feature film, five years in the making. She hopes Traces of the Trade eventually will be seen on PBS television.

Convention viewing

Browne, who has a master’s degree in theology and wrote her thesis on film and democratic dialogue, needs another $100,000 to complete the final editing. In the meantime, she will show the almost-complete film to bishops and deputies at General Convention in Columbus. When Executive Council members issued the invitation in April, she accepted readily as a means to support proposed resolutions on reparations and apologies for slavery.

The film, subtitled “A Story from the Deep North,” presents an unsettling view of a wealthy family and a complicit community. It exposes a government that allowed its own laws – inadequate and overdue though they were – to be broken with impunity.

“The slave trade was illegal for most of the time the DeWolfs and other Rhode Islanders were practicing it,” says Browne. “The DeWolfs secured a political favor from none other than President Thomas Jefferson whose campaign they had supported.” That favor meant a customs official always was absent when DeWolf ships sailed into or out of the harbor.

Relatives participated

To tell the family story, Browne invited relatives to join her on a journey of discovery, one that would retrace their ancestors’ steps. Out of 200 relatives she contacted, nine said “yes.” Those nine descendents, ages 32 to 71, traveled together to the original homes and factories in Rhode Island, to the family’s former holdings and sugar plantations in Cuba and to the slave forts of Ghana in West Africa. Then they returned to Boston and recounted their experiences to Charles Ogletree, law professor at Harvard Law School and leader of a legal team pursuing reparations for African Americans.

Browne’s camera caught it all -- emotion, argument, guilt, remorse and talk of atonement. “There is nothing like going to the slave forts in Ghana to make this as real as it can possibly be,” she says. “When we were there … in the dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, the camera light battery died. Suddenly we were in pitch blackness. Instinctively we wanted to get out of there.

“It occurred to me to have us not leave, to stay. So we all stayed. 10 minutes … 15 … in the complete blackness. I am claustrophobic. I was completely overcome … knowing what that space was, was just the closest experience I had of the just total, total horror.”

Traces of the Trade confronts viewers with their own family history. “It is particularly important that the Episcopal Church be on the cutting edge of this,” says Dain Perry, Katrina’s cousin and one of the nine who made the journey. “It was the Episcopal Church that was condoning slavery. We were the dominant denomination in early America, and we did not stand up against slavery and, in fact, ministers had slaves.”

Perry, of the Diocese of Massachusetts, has taken the film to schools and groups and led the conversations that followed. There is initial resistance, he says, but the film helps people “go down into the depths and talk … It is very real. In New England, audiences show “surprise and disappointment … to hear of New England’s involvement.”

He says he encountered disbelief and embarrassment when talk turned to the wealth created on the backs of slaves by textile mills in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

Browne says she hopes her film will become a catalyst for dialogue and education. With the help of Zena Link, a seminarian at Episcopal Divinity School, where Browne is given an office and production space, she plans screenings for civic associations, race-dialogue groups, museums, historical societies, congregations and schools. She says she hopes the documentary will help to publicize the coming bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade.

“Thomas Jefferson signed the law on March 2, 1807. It went into effect on Jan. 1, 1808. We are coming up on that,” says Browne. In England, where slavery also was abolished in 1807, “a coalition of religious organizations is using this bicentennial as an opportunity to organize around ending slavery [in the world] today.”

Browne says she wants people in the United States to do the same. “I really think the Episcopal Church could take a leadership role … by having a really deeply intentional process.” She points to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth Commission in South Africa as the model.

“A process would naturally be grounded in spirit and faith and commitment to do the work of the soul that is really needed. God willing, an effort like that could send a message to the rest of the country and invite all Americans to do similar work.”