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."

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