Confronting Slavery in the Deep North

A filmmaker uncovers her family's past as a Northern slave-trading dynasty.

Browne's documentary will air on Tuesday, June 24 on PBS.

Traveling the country while making a film, I've been struck by the fact that the vast majority of white Americans do not consider themselves "racist." In the North, we especially presume ourselves innocent. I certainly did.

In 1995, when I was 28, and enrolled in seminary in Berkeley, Calif., I received a small booklet from my grandmother. She wanted to be sure her grandchildren knew about our family history. In the midst of stories about artists, writers, ministers and others in our family tree, she included a few brief sentences about our DeWolf ancestors being slave traders in Bristol, Rhode Island.

In researching the historical literature, I was horrified to learn that the DeWolfs, my ancestors, were actually the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history. I don't think anyone in my family realized the extent of it. The scope of the story had somehow been watered down over the generations. Our relatives, I learned, had developed this "vertically-integrated" model of smart capitalism applied to a cruel, horrific trade. They owned the ships, a rum distillery, bank, insurance company, several plantations in Cuba, and an auction house in Charleston, S.C.

Three generations of my ancestors brought more than 10,000 African people to Northern and Southern states and to the West Indies from 1769-1820 (that we know about for sure). They owned Cuban plantations for decades longer. But they weren't alone. They were part of a broad-based pattern of Northern complicity in slavery. Average citizens bought shares in slave ships, back then, the way people buy shares in the stock market today. Workers made sails and ropes and shackles. Farmers grew food that fed sailors on slave ships and enslaved Africans in the West Indies. Not to mention that African people were enslaved in the North for over 200 years (how did I miss that in my history books?). And even when that practice ended, Northern textile mills used slave-picked cotton from the South to fuel the Industrial Revolution. And Northern banks and insurance companies kept the wheels in motion.

Receiving the booklet from my grandmother, I was shocked to hear this news about my family. But the bigger shock came in the very next instant: I suddenly realized that I already knew. I had completely buried this painful truth—pushed it far from my consciousness. I still don't remember how or when I initially found out, but I have a friend who remembers me talking about it in college. The knowledge was clearly influencing me at some level: I had joined the (almost) all-black gospel choir at Princeton University, was devouring literature by black women authors, and in my 20s, I co-founded a multicultural Americorps program, Public Allies. White guilt was guiding me—but blindly, in a sense.

So rediscovering this family history in my late 20s told me a lot—it explained a lot. And discovering the vast extent of Northern complicity in slavery explained a lot, too. Parallel complicity and parallel amnesia, and some parallel white liberal guilt maybe?

I was seeing things more clearly now: Slavery was the foundation of the U.S. economy, South and North. Yet the North successfully constructed an identity as pure and heroic abolitionists to cover all this over. It's understandable. No one wants to be related to bad guys. But conscience gnaws at you. As I came to terms with the discovery, it also influenced my feelings about a broad range of social issues. If slavery was a national institution, I came to realize, then the legacy of slavery is a national responsibility.

Confronting this history and public policy questions about how to level the still unlevel playing field in this country isn't just about confronting facts and figures. There is, of course, a tangle of emotions and narratives that need to be addressed.

While in seminary, I wrote a master's thesis on Aristotle's theories about the power of Greek tragedies to impact public dialogue. Theater and democracy went hand in hand in Ancient Greece. Important social issues—ripe for public debate—were highlighted in plays. I knew that the role of the North in slavery was a story I needed to tell, and that it should be a personal journey into the uncomfortable emotional terrain of my and my family's relationship to the legacy of slavery. It needed to be told in an art form that can be experienced on a heart level and collectively; ideally with a chance to talk afterwards.

It became clear to me that creating a documentary film would allow me to show real people dealing with these real issues. I was inspired by Macky Alston's documentary Family Name and Edward Ball's book Slaves in the Family, which both came out in 1998. That was also the year in which Joanne Pope Melish released Disowning Slavery, which laid out New England's "constructed amnesia" about slavery. And so, that same year, I resolved to make Traces of the Trade. Both Alston and Ball were descendants of Southern slave-holders, breaking codes of silence. I, a Northerner, had some truth-telling of my own to do.