Slavery's legacy
Arizona Daily Star
Jan. 20, 2008

Tucsonan is in Sundance Film Festival documentary

By Stephanie Innes


Tucson, Arizona | Published:

A Tucson man descended from what's believed to be the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history is featured in a documentary about his ancestors that premieres Monday at the Sundance Film Festival.

The release of the film, "Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North," coincides with the 200th anniversary of abolition of the U.S. slave trade, as well as with celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

For 66-year-old Jim Perry, who has lived in Tucson since the late 1990s, the film is an opportunity for descendants of the East Coast's prominent white DeWolf family to shed light on a period in history that he believes many Americans still do not understand.

Perry and his sixth cousin, Katrina Browne, the film's producer and director, hope the film motivates a national dialogue about a pervasive chasm between blacks and whites in America, where they say whites remain at an unfair advantage. They blame the disparity on slavery, and on the racism that followed slavery.

The family also hopes to clarify any notion that slavery was confined to the South. The DeWolf slave trading dynasty involved a huge portion of the population in the North.

"White people need to see this film because, in theory, most white people know about slavery, but I don't think most white people understand, really understand, what slavery was, what the slave trade was, and what the results are today," said Perry, a retired consultant and non-profit director whose full name is James DeWolf Perry V.

Perry is the great-great-great-great-grandson of James DeWolf, a major player in the family slave-trading business and a former U.S. senator from Rhode Island. Some accounts say that when he died in 1837, DeWolf was the second-wealthiest man in the United States.

"People say 'Oprah made it and Bill Cosby made it and Michael Jordan made it,' " Perry said. But the reality, he said, is that the average person growing up as a descendant of slaves, in families with little money and little education, faces tremendous odds.

"Of all the things I learned doing this film, the most important to me, I believe, was the concept of white privilege," Perry said.

Between 1770 and 1820, three generations of the DeWolf family traded items such as rum, handkerchiefs, bread and mackerel for enslaved African men, women and children.

The family engaged in more slaving voyages than any other family in U.S. history and brought more Africans across the Atlantic than any other U.S. family.

The slaves, housed in dungeons in coastal Ghana, were then packed onto ships, their hands and arms bound, to work for often brutal owners in the West Indies and the United States.

Records from the city of Newport, R.I., that Browne and her film crew uncovered included a petition from a merchant who asked that the slave whipping post near his store be moved because the slaves' blood was getting on his store windows.

The family transported more than 10,000 enslaved Africans to the Americas, resulting in tremendous wealth. Their ancillary businesses included making rum, operating sugar and coffee plantations in Cuba, a slave auction house and insurance company and a bank. Browne says the trading continued even after if was outlawed because of a political favor from President Thomas Jefferson.

Browne, 40, who lives in Boston, got the idea of making the film while doing graduate studies in theology.

Her grandmother sent her a family history that mentioned slave trading. After doing more research, Browne sent out 200 letters to DeWolf family members asking them to participate in a family project, and heard back from 60.

She accompanied nine of them including Perry, Perry's brother Dain, and Perry's son James DeWolf Perry VI on a trip to retrace her ancestors' trading route from Bristol, R.I., to Ghana to Cuba.

That trip and the ensuing discussions and reactions from blacks in all three locations are documented in the film.

Perry said the trip brought about changes in his thinking. The most powerful moments were standing in the dungeons in Ghana where the enslaved Africans were held, he said, and sitting in the room where his ancestor once bargained the price to pay for them.

"Do I feel guilt about what, say, James DeWolf did? No," Perry said. "What he did was horrible, unimaginably evil, but I don't feel guilty about it.

"What I do feel, and I think that was part of the decision I made about doing this journey, is an incredibly unusual opportunity because I have this family history, because I have James DeWolf's name."

In the film, the 10 family members, ranging in age from 32 to 70, visit slave forts, read historic records and examine the shackles and ropes. They also visit the grave of a female slave whom James DeWolf purchased when she was a child as a Christmas gift for his wife.

"I know some people will be tempted to react and make it about us and our family," said Browne. "But we hope people will take it to a larger conversation that is broader than the DeWolf family."

Browne's research shows the DeWolf family fortune disappeared not long after the slave trading ended. But, by most accounts, the family had firmly established itself in the cultural elite.

The family's members have a long history of attending Ivy League schools and being leaders in the Episcopal Church, as well as professors, lawyers, writers and artists. Browne and her father attended Princeton. Perry and his father attended Harvard. His son is completing a doctorate there.

In the film, Perry makes a comment about attending Harvard, saying that it wasn't his family that earned his place there. In retrospect, he says now, he might have worded that differently.

It's difficult to say what kind of education he would have had if he'd been raised in a black family that descended from slaves, rather than in a privileged, white family, he said. In his Harvard graduating class of about 1,200, Perry recalls four people were black.

"If I could have the conversation again, the other part of what I'd say is, I would talk about growing up in Charleston and having descendants of slaves cooking for us and calling me Master Jim and how after the second grade I was always sent to private schools," Perry said. "I had privilege because of the color of my skin, because I'm male. I attended private schools. My parents read to me."

A few members of the DeWolf family have also become a lobbying group of sorts. At their urging, in 2006 the Episcopal Church apologized for once owning slaves and promised to combat racism.

The family members are also advocating passage of legislation, HR 40, which has been introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in every Congress since 1989.

The resolution would create a commission to study slavery and its impact on blacks in America, and make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies. So far, the resolution's reference to reparations has failed to win enough support at the committee level.

Perry and other DeWolf relatives stress that it's impossible for anyone to know what they would have done had they been alive during the slave-trading era.

"We all have a tendency to accept," the Tucson descendant said. "I imagine there are things we do today that will shock people 100 years from now."

On StarNet: Read a Q&A with the filmmaker, Katrina Browne.

● Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or

Tucsonan Jim Perry, shown with an 1808 engraving of a slave ship, is a descendant of James DeWolf, a member of the largest slave-trading family in the U.S.

david sanders / arizona daily star

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About the film

Title: "Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North."

Producer/Director: Katrina Browne.

Length: 86 minutes.

World premiere: At 6:15 p.m. this Monday at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where it is competing in the documentary category.

Synopsis: Browne tells the story of her ancestors, the largest slave-trading family in early America. From 1770 to 1820, three generations of DeWolfs transported more than 10,000 Africans into slavery.

In the film, Browne narrates a journey with nine family members that brings them face-to-face with New England's once-hidden enterprise. The family, including Tucsonan Jim Perry, retraces the Triangle Trade that the DeWolf slave traders followed: Rhode Island, Ghana and Cuba.

Tucson screenings: To be announced; Perry and his wife, Shirley, hope to arrange local showings.

"White people need to see this film because, in theory, most white people know about slavery, but I don't think most white people understand, really understand, what slavery was, what the slave trade was, and what the results are today."

Jim Perry, the great-great-great-great-grandson of James DeWolf, a major player in the family slave-trading business and a former U.S. senator from Rhode Island

racial disparities

The filmmaker cites racial disparities such as these:

Real median household income of non-Hispanic white American households in 2007: $52,400

Real median household income of black American households in 2007: $32,000

Percentage of non-Hispanic whites in poverty in 2006: 8.2

Percentage of blacks in poverty in 2006: 24.3

Percentage of the American population that are black: 13

Percentage of incarcerated Americans that are black: 44

Percentage of blacks who think blacks are better off now than five years ago: 20

Percentage of whites who think blacks are better off now than five years ago: 37

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Human Rights Watch and the Pew Research Center


Do descendants of slave owners bear any responsibility?

Yes, it is their family bloodlines and they are today's representatives of the past

No, it was a different time and different group of people