A family takes a hard look at its tarnished past


CORNWALL - This week, a moving documentary about a family facing head-on the sins of its slave-trading ancestors is being shown at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. "Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North" will compete as an independent film and from there may be launched into the mainstream.

But that’s not why it was made.

And that’s not why people packed Cornwall Town Hall Sunday afternoon for an unauthorized preview.

Local resident Ledlie Laughlin appears in the film along with eight distant family members. It charts their trip to Rhode Island, Africa and Cuba; not a vacation, but a tracing of the routes of their ancestors’ lucrative slave-trading empire.

Laughlin, and the Cornwall Historical Society, which hosted the event, have put off publicizing it beyond the town limits. He told The Journal Sunday his cousin and film producer Katrina Browne is looking to negotiate with distributors. He brought with him a version that was not quite the final cut, and has only about half of the final 86-minute film. It seems unlikely that this screening will jeopardize negotiations.

Laughlin explained the film was made to be shown at schools and churches. PBS has already bought the rights and plans to air the film in the fall.

And later, after listening to his comments in the film, it became clear Laughlin needed to do with his cherished community members exactly what other family members were doing: putting it out there and seeking forgiveness, despite not being to blame.


Putting family ghosts to rest


It began about seven years ago when Browne, a Boston filmmaker, contacted more than 200 family members across the country. Eight agreed to join her on what they rightly expected would be a painful trip. It began on July 4, 2001.

The seaside fort where more than 10,000 Africans were bought by the DeWolfs and loaded into ships was difficult to see. Most of the slaves were brought to Cuba, where they worked the sugar and molasses plantations that supplied James DeWolf’s rum distillery back in Rhode Island. Sometimes, slaves were given to family members as Christmas gifts.

While the family was visiting Ghana, the local residents held a spiritual cleansing ceremony at the river where captured Africans were washed in preparation for auction at the fort. The DeWolf descendants asked to participate, but the Africans rebuffed them.

"We were told to consult with our elders," Browne said.

Just as difficult was the reception the family got in Bristol, R. I., where the DeWolfs are revered and their sins conveniently forgotten. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, DeWolf was the second wealthiest man in the country. He owned numerous enterprises, served as a senator and was powerful enough to influence President Thomas Jefferson to keep customs officials out of his shipping business.

The DeWolf descendants’ roots are deep in Bristol. Many grew up there. Over the generations, the sordid aspects of their history were effectively buried. As one cousin put it, they had a "no-talk rule." Forbidden subjects were religion, sex, politics and "the Negroes."

Browne says in the film she should have suspected it, but was not truly aware of the family’s past until given a very candid account written by her grandmother.

There are those in Bristol who know. The historical society has an entire file cabinet full of DeWolf information. But locals prefer that the information stays tucked away. When the family tried to visit a museum in a historic mansion that was once a DeWolf home, they were turned away.


A minister’s burden


For those who know Laughlin, as a retired minister, a community volunteer and gentle soul, it was easy to see the family’s moral struggle, played out in the narrative and discussions on hotel room floors.

It is hard to imagine anyone would blame these intently concerned family members for the sins of their ancestors. But it remains an emotional struggle, and is back in the limelight with a movement for slave reparations that could target descendants.

After the showing, Laughlin told the audience that four of his ancestors died on the shores of Ghana. One committed suicide.

"I can just imagine why," he said.

"My fears about going to Ghana were that it wouldn’t mean a lot to me. I was afraid I would see where the slaves were imprisoned and it wouldn’t come alive for me," he said. "And the other fear was that it would come alive for me."

It’s all hard to get past and the family knows they will be dealing with it for a long time to come. Thomas Norman DeWolf has written a memoir of the journey, "Inheriting the Trade."

Laughlin took the film to New Jersey and the first Episcopal church he served, which has a black congregation.

"It was the first place I showed it, and I had no idea how people would react."

It was one church member who broke the ice and summed up how the subject continues to be played out by saying, "I don’t like the feelings that the film raised up in me."

Latest News

Fresh perspectives in Norfolk Library film series

Diego Ongaro

Photo submitted

Parisian filmmaker Diego Ongaro, who has been living in Norfolk for the past 20 years, has composed a collection of films for viewing based on his unique taste.

The series, titled “Visions of Europe,” began over the winter at the Norfolk Library with a focus on under-the-radar contemporary films with unique voices, highlighting the creative richness and vitality of the European film landscape.

Keep ReadingShow less
New ground to cover and plenty of groundcover

Young native pachysandra from Lindera Nursery shows a variety of color and delicate flowers.

Dee Salomon

It is still too early to sow seeds outside, except for peas, both the edible and floral kind. I have transplanted a few shrubs and a dogwood tree that was root pruned in the fall. I have also moved a few hellebores that seeded in the near woods back into their garden beds near the house; they seem not to mind the few frosty mornings we have recently had. In years past I would have been cleaning up the plant beds but I now know better and will wait at least six weeks more. I have instead found the most perfect time-consuming activity for early spring: teasing out Vinca minor, also known as periwinkle and myrtle, from the ground in places it was never meant to be.

Planting the stuff in the first place is my biggest ever garden regret. It was recommended to me as a groundcover that would hold together a hillside, bare after a removal of invasive plants save for a dozen or so trees. And here we are, twelve years later; there is vinca everywhere. It blankets the hillside and has crept over the top into the woods. It has made its way left and right. I am convinced that vinca is the plastic of the plant world. The stuff won’t die. (The name Vinca comes from the Latin ‘vincire’ which means ‘to bind or fetter.’) Last year I pulled a bunch and left it strewn on the roof of the root cellar for 6 months and the leaves were still green.

Keep ReadingShow less
Matza Lasagne by 'The Cook and the Rabbi'

Culinary craftsmanship intersects with spiritual insights in the wonderfully collaborative book, “The Cook and the Rabbi.” On April 14 at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck (6422 Montgomery Street), the cook, Susan Simon, and the rabbi, Zoe B. Zak, will lead a conversation about food, tradition, holidays, resilience and what to cook this Passover.

Passover, marked by the traditional seder meal, holds profound significance within Jewish culture and for many carries extra meaning this year at a time of great conflict. The word seder, meaning “order” in Hebrew, unfolds in a 15-step progression intertwining prayers, blessings, stories, and songs that narrate the ancient saga of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. It’s a narrative that has endured for over two millennia, evolving with time yet retaining its essence, a theme echoed beautifully in “The Cook and the Rabbi.”

Keep ReadingShow less
Housy baseball drops 3-2 to Northwestern

Freshman pitcher Wyatt Bayer threw three strikeouts when HVRHS played Northwestern April 9.

Riley Klein

WINSTED — A back-and-forth baseball game between Housatonic Valley Regional High School and Northwestern Regional High School ended 3-2 in favor of Northwestern on Tuesday, April 9.

The Highlanders played a disciplined defensive game and kept errors to a minimum. Wyatt Bayer pitched a strong six innings for HVRHS, but the Mountaineers fell behind late and were unable to come back in the seventh.

Keep ReadingShow less