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Inheriting the Trade

A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History

Author: Thomas Norman DeWolf

A trailblazing memoir about one family’s quest to face its slave-trading past, and an urgent call for reconciliation

In 2001, at forty-seven, Thomas DeWolf was astounded to discover that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in American history, responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans to the Americas. His infamous ancestor, U.S. senator James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, curried favor with President Thomas Jefferson to continue in the trade after it was outlawed. When James DeWolf died in 1837, he was the second-richest man in America.

When Katrina Browne, Thomas DeWolf’s cousin, learned about their family’s history, she resolved to confront it head-on, producing and directing a documentary feature film, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. The film is an official selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Inheriting the Trade is Tom DeWolf’s powerful and disarmingly honest memoir of the journey in which ten family members retraced the steps of their ancestors and uncovered the hidden history of New England and the other northern states.

Their journey through the notorious Triangle Trade-from New England to West Africa to Cuba-proved life-altering, forcing DeWolf to face the horrors of slavery directly for the first time. It also inspired him to contend with the complicated legacy that continues to affect black and white Americans, Africans, and Cubans today.

Inheriting the Trade reveals that the North’s involvement in slavery was as common as the South’s. Not only were black people enslaved in the North for over two hundred years, but the vast majority of all slave trading in America was done by northerners. Remarkably, half of all North American voyages involved in the slave trade originated in Rhode Island, and all the northern states benefited.

With searing candor, DeWolf tackles both the internal and external challenges of his journey-writing frankly about feelings of shame, white male privilege, the complicity of churches, America’s historic amnesia regarding slavery-and our nation’s desperate need for healing. An urgent call for meaningful and honest dialogue, Inheriting the Trade illuminates a path toward a more hopeful future and provides a persuasive argument that the legacy of slavery isn’t merely a southern issue but an enduring American one.
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“Exploring the links between a grand Rhode Island mansion and dungeons in Ghana, Tom DeWolf traces the infernal trade that gave his family, and this country, great wealth and power. His journey into the past forces painful questions to the surface and illuminates our present.” —Henry Wiencek, Winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America

Inheriting the Trade is a compelling invitation to explore how our country and many institutions, including churches, benefited from this dark chapter. Such exploration is essential if we are to move forward to a place of repair and racial reconciliation.” —Frank T. Griswold, 25th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

“Tom DeWolf’s deeply personal story, of his own journey as well as his family’s, is required reading for anyone interested in reconciliation. Healing from our historic wounds, which continue to separate us, requires us to walk this road together.” —Myrlie Evers-Williams, civil rights leader, chairman emeritus of the NAACP (1995-98), and author of The Autobiography of Medgar Evers, Watch Me Fly, and For Us the Living

Inheriting the Trade is like a slow-motion mash-up, a first-person view from within one of the country’s founding families as it splinters, then puts itself back together again.” —Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family

“A candid, powerful, and insightful book about how one family dealt with the infamous slave trade. Jarring in its candor, and revealing in its honest assessment of slavery and the Dewolf family, we must read important books like this if we dare to appreciate every aspect of our history, and as the Dewolf family does, dare to change our judgments about the wretched history of slavery.” —Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Executive Director, The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School


Review by: Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor - February 19, 2008
And it is that spirit of honesty and the willingness to confront the ugly parts of human experience that give Inheriting the Trade its value. Nowhere in the book does DeWolf find any real answers to their questions about redressing the wrongs of their ancestors. But honest self-examination remains an excellent place to start. Read Full Review
Review by: Mary Donnarumma Sharnick, America Magazine - February 18, 2008
DeWolf’s memoir merits inclusion on reading lists for students of American history, race relations and spiritual growth.
Review: Kirkus - December 15, 2007
“His conclusions will be controversial, but DeWolf’s intimate confrontation with white America’s 'unearned privilege' sears the conscience.”
  • Read about Inheriting the Trade in the Boston Globe's "Shelf Life" column
  • Read about Inheriting the Trade in the Providence Journal
  • Watch Tom DeWolf on the Chet Curtis Report
  • Read a story on Tom DeWolf's book.
An interview with Tom on the CBS Early Show

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  1. The preface begins with: Everyone has secrets—shameful episodes in our past that we try to keep buried. Heaven forbid that anyone should find out. What would people say? What are some of the potential impacts that hidden episodes in history—personal or societal—can have on individuals and in communities or nations? Can you think of situations in which a secret caused harm?
  2. Tom grew up in Pomona, California which had a racially diverse population. Yet he seemed to lack both an understanding of cultures other than his own and much real contact with people of color outside of school. What factors do you think contributed to this “segregation” within a supposedly “integrated” community? Does this still happen in towns in the United States today? If you believe it does, what are the contributing factors?
  3. Keila spoke about the “unwritten rules” in her family in which it wasn’t appropriate to discuss sex, religion, politics, or the Negroes. What “unwritten rules” existed in your family? How do such rules impact the larger community?
  4. Tom includes sections of history in Inheriting the Trade that were episodes of which he was personally unaware (King Phillip’s War, Northern involvement in slavery and the slave trade, Ghanaian and Cuban history). He suspected that if he hadn’t learned about certain facts of history in school that he was probably not alone. What did you learn from the book that you didn’t know before? Does this information impact your thinking about America?
  5. When Holly shared information about the film project (Traces of the Trade) with her stepfather he said, “I just think this [the idea of uncovering the family and town history and putting it into a film] is fearsome. I’m afraid.” Holly said, “If I grew up when he did, in his milieu, and I was his age, I’d probably have that same reaction.” What are your thoughts about exposing—or learning about—previously hidden and horrible incidents in history?
  6. The words of Professor Kofi Anyidoho regarding the impact of the slave trade from the perspective of West African people had a profound impact on DeWolf and his cousins, as did their experience of being in the slave dungeon when the lights went out and they were plunged into darkness accompanied only by their own thoughts. What scenes or words impacted you the most from what you read about the family’s time in Ghana?
  7. Tom discusses in some detail the horrific abuses enslaved African people suffered both in Africa and during the Middle Passage. He also discusses the complicity of churches and Christian people in slavery and the slave trade. Many people claim that these issues and people must be viewed within the context of the times in which they lived. DeWolf came to the conclusion that “it was an evil thing and they knew it was an evil thing and they did it anyway.” What do you think?
  8. In Cuba the family was distracted by the festive atmosphere of Carnival: music, Mojitos, being in an “enemy” country most Americans cannot visit. Two family members become upset that the group isn’t doing what they came to do: connect with each other and talk about race in the United States. Elizabeth disagrees. She says it is tempting to be distracted and lured into amnesia and that this “disconnection is the very thing we’re here for.” Who is right, and why?
  9. The family had several group conversations with people of color in Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba. Have you ever had an in-depth conversation with someone from a different “race” about issues that divide us or the impact that historic oppression may still have today? If so, what was the outcome? If not, why not?
  10. Issues of gender came up throughout the journey. How does gender intersect with issues of race? Does one’s gender impact a person’s view of racism and the legacy of slavery? Since men were the traders, the ship captains, and the heads of households is it fair to lay the blame at the feet of men? Is there value in finding someone to blame? Is there danger in finding someone to blame?
  11. When Professor Ron David at Harvard wrote a phrase on the chalk board (Relationships are primary; all else is derivative) Tom said he felt like he won the lottery; that the phrase captured the essence of what every great teacher throughout history has tried to tell us about right living. What does the phrase mean? What implications does it have in your life?
  12. Though Tom expressed anger at churches, religious people, and their active role in historic oppression he also writes of having spiritual experiences and of grace. His cousin Deb said, “You can find spirituality in religion sometimes.” What did she mean? How do you view the role of religion in relation to historic—as well as current-day—oppression? What are some of the benefits as well as detriments of religious beliefs and practices?
  13. Apology is a challenging concept discussed toward the end of Inheriting the Trade. How do you view the importance of apology in general? Should anyone—individually or collectively—apologize for historic acts? Why or why not?
  14. Tom outlined a four-step process—awareness, apology, repair, and forgiveness—to achieve reconciliation after harm—historic or contemporary—has been committed. Do you agree or disagree, and how so?
  15. “Reparations” is a word that incites passion in people black and white—for different reasons. After reading Tom’s explanation of his views—and support—for reparations/repair, what do you think? How would you repair the inequities and injustices that continue to disproportionately impact people of color today?
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Inheriting the Trade

ISBN: 978-080707281-3
Publication Date: 1/15/2008
Pages: 272
Size:6 x 9 Inches (US)
Price:  $24.95
Format: Cloth
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