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'Traces of the Trade' and Philanthropy, Part 2

August 20, 2008

(Kathryn Pyle is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. This post picks up where her previous post, below, left off. )

Tot"The Traces of the Trade event was certainly outside our normal film program," says Alyce Myatt. "But the legacy of slavery and the need for dialogue around race, class, and privilege is so important. How can the philanthropic community address the issue? One way is through media, and this film is unique in terms of the issue and the funding it received. By showcasing it, GFEM can support and advance funders' policy goals."

The film chronicles the journey of the ten family members, beginning in Bristol, Rhode Island, as they examine evidence of their slave-trader ancestors; then on to the west coast of Africa as they follow the route of the slave ships, stopping at one of the most notorious forts that held captives for resale and visiting one of the family's plantations in Cuba; and finally back to Bristol as they struggle with what to do next. Some descendents become involved in the broadly based reparations movement. Others engage in an Episcopal Church project to research how the church benefitted from the trade and what to do about it. The film's final message is a challenge to "bring all the stories out in the open," and to engage in dialogue with African Americans about our shared past.

As the film illustrates, the history of the slave trade, and of slavery in the U.S., is still being uncovered. The great surge of interest in that history during the 1960s and 1970s produced black studies programs, networks of academics and lay scholars; conferences, articles, books, films, radio, and other media projects; family reunions and popular genealogy; and museum exhibitions and historical society programs.

More recently, new technologies for data collection, analysis, and access have tremendously expanded our knowledge and spurred a resurgence of interest, particularly about the trade itself, on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the past decade or so, particular attention has been paid to that history as it played out in the North. The New-York Historical Society recently organized a fine three-part exhibition on slavery in New York City and created a permanent galley in response to overwhelming public interest. The Chester County (PA) Historical Society's interactive "Just Over the Line" exhibit on the underground railroad challenged viewers to take a stand relative to laws forbidding assistance to runaway slaves in real-life situations. That exhibit included census data showing the pattern of Philadelphia-area slave ownership. Rhode Island, the colony/state that launched 60 percent of all U.S.-based slave trading expeditions, will host a Freedom Festival this fall. And under pressure from students and civil society groups, universities are beginning to examine their own histories. A committee at Brown University found that the university benefitted indirectly from the slave trade and related industries through financial support; among other initiatives created as a result of the study, Brown has developed a high school curriculum on the slave trade in the Northeast and hosts workshops on the theme.

But even with all the new attention, the recognition of slavery as a national experience, not just a regional one, has been slow in coming. In contrast, commemorations in England last year marking the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade there emphasized the extent to which the trade was ingrained in the economy and affected the lives of ordinary citizens. Similarly, museums on slavery in Liverpool and Bristol show the slave-trade roots of those cities' prosperity.

Traces of the Trade highlights the story of three generations of the De Wolf family who were engaged in the slave trade based in Bristol. Indeed, it was the major part of their business from 1769 to 1820. A strength of the film is that it presents the business' diversification and "vertical integration," qualities that eventually obscured the source of capital and spread economic benefits through the larger society.

The film also points the way to similar searches. The Rhode Island Historical Society (like similar societies in other regions, a critical source of information on the trade), is open to the public. It acquired the De Wolf family papers from 1863 to 1994, began organizing the collection in 1978, and microfilmed it in 2001. The collection -- letters, photographs, business papers, and other artifacts -- is featured in the film. Typical of slave trade research, some of the most revealing documents are court records -- in particular those related to a case in which James De Wolf was charged with throwing overboard a smallpox-infected slave en route from Africa. Such an act was illegal under the laws defining the trade. De Wolf (1764-1837), a member of the middle of the three generations discussed in the film, served as a U.S. senator and was one of the wealthiest men in America. While slavery was the basis of that wealth, the family remained a prominent and influential family after the slave trade was formally abolished by Congress in 1808. (Even then, many traders continued to engage in it, facilitated by the fact that slavery remained legal in much of the hemisphere until 1888, when it was abolished by Brazil, the last country to do so.)

Traces of the Trade will be distributed by California Newsreel, a nonprofit producer/ distributor of social-issue films. With a special focus on racial justice and diversity and the study of African-American life and history, the organization sees the primary market for the film as academic centers and departments -- including those dealing with race; the history of the U.S., Caribbean, and Africa; cultural studies; conflict resolution and peace studies -- and theological seminaries.

"We've been following this film's production over the years and we're eager to help get it out there; race relations is not an easy subject and one that still is a challenge in terms of engaging the general public," says Newsreel's Cornelius Moore. "And while much of the historical information might reside in public archives, access is not always encouraged. We think the film can stir interest and support people who want to uncover the full story of their community's past."

The family members who participate in the film acknowledge that while no trade-based fortune has come to them, the social position of the family gained through that wealth established a platform of privilege that has extended through the generations to benefit nearly all of them. It is that privilege and the question of responsibility that give the film its broader significance. Commenting on the film's success at the council event and the anticipated reception at the council's upcoming meeting of family foundations, David Haas feels the issue of privilege is key. "It's a family saga that I believe will resonate with family foundation members about where to go from here."

-- Kathryn Pyle

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