Growing up in Bristol, Rhode Island, Katrina Browne was steeped in the traditions and lore of her family, the DeWolfs. The DeWolf family was an integral part of the town’s identity, somewhere between founding fathers and royalty. The stained-glass windows in the family church were paid for by her ancestors and bore their names; the town’s signature mansion, now a museum, was built by a DeWolf and the home remained in the family until the late 1980s.
Growing up, Browne never questioned this legacy, never looked deeper, until her grandmother wrote a small booklet about the family that briefly and vaguely mentioned their ties to the slave trade—a topic so taboo for so long that most living descendants knew nothing about it. Browne began to look into the family’s dark secret and found that the DeWolfs were not only significant players in the trade, but were in fact the largest, most successful slave-trading organization in history.
Just as startling to Browne was the revelation that the North, contrary to its image as innocent in the slave trade and as a catalyst for abolition, was deeply complicit in slavery, all the way through the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. And tiny Rhode Island saw more African captives pass through its ports than any other state.
Browne, who holds a master’s degree in theology from Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion, set out to examine this history and to try to come to grips with her family’s role. She contacted 200 DeWolf descendants across the country and invited them to join her confronting the family legacy by retracing their ancestors’ trade route. The vast majority of them never responded; of the rest, only nine took her up on the offer. The result is Traces of the Trade, a documentary about the excursion that was written, produced and directed by Browne. The film kicks off the 21st season of PBS’ acclaimed independent documentary series P.O.V. Tuesday night, June 24.
Traces of the Trade follows the group as they travel from Rhode Island to the ports of Ghana, where their ancestors traded rum and scarves for slaves; from Ghana to Cuba, where those slaves helped in the harvesting of sugar and the production of molasses, and where they were held until prices were favorable in the American slave market; and back to Rhode Island, where the slaves were sold for vast profits and the products of their labor were distilled into rum, the cycle beginning anew.
Along the way, Browne and her cohorts grapple with the myriad issues raised by their family’s legacy. Though none of them inherited money from those ancestors, they are forced to reckon with the vestiges of privilege that the family gained through the slave trade. At times the whole exercise can seem self-indulgent, and they even struggle with that, wondering what good it does for a pack of white folk to travel about and talk among themselves about racial relations. Is this just a method to assuage their guilt? Or can something more beneficial come of this?
At one point the group, seeking an outside voice, puts their questions to Juanita Brown, the film’s African-American, Berkeley-educated co-producer. Brown had intended to stay out of the family discussions and focus on facilitating the discussions between the DeWolfs and Ghanans, but when put on the spot, she manages to give the DeWolfs the perspective they need to better understand their role in the dialogue.
In the end, the DeWolfs manage to find a few methods by which they can contribute to the dialogue, by encouraging their ancestral hometown and their church to not only acknowledge their role in the slave trade and the morass of racial relations in the United States, but to start figuring out what to do about it.