Unexpected Gifts

Participation in a National Endowment for the Humanities Institute at Brown University was an extraordinary opportunity. Thirty teachers interacted with scholars who specialize in northern involvement in slavery. None of the participants had been taught or trained to teach that the North flourished because of slave trading during the 17th through the 18tcenturies. The subject was The Role of Slavery in the Rise of New England Commerce, Industry, and Culture to 1860. The operative word was complicity. Not only did people in tiny Rhode Island have slaves, they were leaders in the slave trade. When they stopped sending out ships to get slaves, they were heavily involved in the production of goods and products for the southern markets to trade for cotton for the mills.
Two highlights of the 10-day program were meeting the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, who can trace his family roots back 13 generations, and watching a film about a family whose ancestor was a famous slave trader. Among many successful relatives on Keith Stokes’ family tree is a second cousin of Judah Touro, who was a famous Jewish philanthropist — Keith is black. His words were empowering as he proudly spoke of his family’s history and acknowledged that present day blacks have a legacy of creative survival for which they can be proud.
Viewing Katrina Brown’s DVD, Traces of the Trade was meaningful because a very difficult subject was discussed while avoiding the finger pointing that often occurs when people try to discuss this subject. Katrina Browne is a descendent of James DeWolf, one of the most successful slave traders in the US. There was a balance of honest self-reflection and critical realization for those participating members that being a “DeWolf” descendent had enabled all of them to benefit from the legacy, whether they still held part of the original fortune or not. As one person tried to declare success by his own hard work, one of the relatives immediately surveyed the group asking for the names of their alma maters. All but one of them had at-tended Harvard, Princeton, or Brown. Watching the family members accept that they had benefited indirectly, if not directly, from other people’s misery was almost cathartic. This DVD is probably the closest I will ever get to an apology from someone with ties (though long ago) to that cruel institution, and I look at that willingness to shoulder some responsibility all these years later as a generous gesture. It is probably the closest to an apology for ongoing cruelty during most of the 400 years Africans have been in America that I will hear in my lifetime.
The doors have been opened for honest dialogue about that ugly part of American History rather than studying what makes the country look good according to the region. For that kudos to Ms. Browne and her family for making it
okay to talk about their family’s role in the institution, and thank you to Keith Stokes for standing so proudly and putting a name to the feeling within that has always made me walk so proudly. There are healing powers in truth, and one can’t forgive until the misdeed is
acknowledged. Jakki

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1 Response to Unexpected Gifts

  1. Kathe Mayer says:

    This was an insight into what has been generally hidden as people react to the 150th start of the Civil War. How people could not have realized that the North, even after they gave up slavery still benefited from the work of those in the cotton fields!

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