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What Good is Genealogy?

This is a common question. My answer is that it gives us a chance to correct the past, where necessary, and create a better future. That answer is at the heart of a movement that has grown out of one New England family's search into their own genealogy, as documented in the PBS movie "Traces of the Trade".


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Thirty -five years ago the world looked slavery in the face thanks to Alex Haley's novel "Roots: The Saga of an American Family," and we watched the television mini-series "Roots." Now Frazier Moore, of the Associated Press, asks, "What if you found out that your Rhode Island ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history?"

A lot of people discover their own families were involved with slavery. In a similar discovery, in 1999, Katrina Browne, a seventh generation descendant of Mark Anthony DeWolf, began researching her family's history in Bristol, Rhode Island. A cultural anthropologist from Princeton University, Browne is no stranger to the issue of race. She was involved with Anna Deavere Smith's play about the Los Angeles riots, "Twilight: Los Angeles" and she has written about France's role in the Holocaust.

Faced with the dark past of her own family, Browne documented the journey she took with nine fellow descendants in the form of the PBS movie, "Traces of the Trade." These DeWolfe descendants traced the family's slave trade route from Rhode Island, where they sold shares to their neighbors in order purchase slaves; to Ghana where they traded rum for slaves; to Havana where they sold the slaves or put them to work on DeWolf plantations.

These slaves produced rum, molasses, and sugar that was sold in the United States to fund the purchase of more slaves. Browne and her family estimate that their ancestors were responsible for buying and selling some 10,000 Ghanans.

While most of us can assure ourselves that our families did not participate in such trade, Browne shares a startling revelation that nearly every white American family has been touched by slavery. Slaves were shackled and fettered, with iron bands around their feet and hands, and they were chained together. There was an industry manufacturing those shackles, fetters, and chains used for human slaves.

The slaves worked to produce sugar from cane. Browne shows a sugar press used in this process. It was used by slaves on one of the DeWolfe's plantations in Havana. The press was made in Buffalo, NY.

Not one to merely document the facts and then close the book on history, Moore observes Browne's response to her own family's past was to "set off on an odyssey to make sense of this outrage and, maybe, to make some small amends." Browne filmed her family visiting their ancestor's role in the slave trade.

Such journeys are not uncommon among the families of slaves from Africa. It is, however, rare for a white family to trace the route of slavery imposed by their ancestors on other people.

"Traces of the Trade" had its world premiere in competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. The film was released in 2008 as part of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Abolition of the Slave Trade. The result has evolved into a faith-based movement based on genealogy, that spans denominations.

Viewers of Traces of the Trade are encouraged to look into their own family's role in slavery and how it continues to impact this country. The issues the DeWolf descendants are confronted with dramatize questions that apply to the nation as a whole: What are the legacies of slavery? Who owes what to whom for the sins of the fathers of this country? What history do we inherit as individuals and as citizens? How does Northern complicity change the equation? What would repair—spiritual and material—really look like and what would it take?

"Katrina Browne is refusing to side-step that unsavory history. Instead she is facing it head on in a very public way . . . with her feature films," says Nan Cobbey of Episcopal Life. Included in the film are resolutions addressing the continuing impact of slavery on society, as put for in resolutions by the Episcopal church.

In the 1790s and early 1800s, the DeWolf family virtually built the economy of Bristol, Rhode Island: many of the buildings they funded still stand, and the stained glass windows at St. Michael's Episcopal Church bear DeWolf names to this day. Appropriately, the biggest push to address the past is happening in the faith-based community. At its 2006 General Convention, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution apologizing for the church's complicity in slavery and urging dioceses and congregations to examine their historic ties to slavery and its aftermath and the economic benefits derived. The resolution also called on the church to study how it could help "repair the breach."

Bishop Tom Shaw, of the Diocese of Massachusetts, testified before Congress on the legacy of slavery in December 2007. In 2008, the Rt. Rev. Catherine S. Roskam of the Episcopal Diocese of New York delivered an apology to Africa during the bicentennial observance of the American abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. The "Traces of the Trade" web site provides educational resources. The Choices Program, from the Watson Institute at Brown University, offers curriculum resources for grades 9-12. Their guide entitled A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England is an appropriate resource in conjunction with "Traces of the Trade," as it directly references the DeWolf family, in addition to unearthing this history in general. What an intriguing way to introduce young people to genealogy.

The impact of genealogy on society has initiated conversations across the country, especially in faith-based communities, calling on the genealogy of individuals, families, and communities:

I was fortunate enough to view "Traces of the Trade" at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Peoria, Illinois. This viewing was presented by Rev. Elizabeth Harding, who is involved with Unitarian Universalist Allies for Racial Equity (ARE). Following the movie, viewers were invited to stay and participate in a discussion about slavery, especially in view of their own genealogy.

"The question is how do we engage with these painful stories? The movie 'Traces of the Trade' offers us a snapshot of how one American family decided to explore their past and begin to talk about the things we are afraid to talk about: these isms mentioned before," Harding says. "Issues of race, racism, classism, gender--all the isms you can think of-- sexism, ageism, able-ism, are really issues of accessibility. How accessible do we want our society to be? The answer to this question depends on how much fear you have about your story, your family's story, and the stories of the people you know (and don't know). They affect us all, in a million different ways, both overt and covert."

She says, "Every viewing is different; therefore every comment I receive is different. However, the majority of viewers that I experience all are glad they watched the film. Every person's viewing experience is informed by their experience of race and racism, and I have not had one person say to me, 'This film is useless. I learned nothing, and this does not pertain to my life at all.' Everyone also expresses grief that racism touches their lives."

Rev. Harding will be showing "Traces of the Trade" in Carbondale, IL on January 30th and in Rockford IL, on February 11, 2009. Contact Rev. Harding at [[| for further showings.

Harding says, "As an American, as a human being, as a woman, I find this movie to be captivating because of its honesty. Each family member has something we can connect with emotionally and physically. There is always a way for us to start this discussion; I see the movie as the one of the best ways."

The ARE, and other movements, are encouraging Americans to look at the impact of slavery in a very personal way, through the eyeglass of genealogy. ARE offers an answer to the question, "What good is genealogy?"

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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