History & Healing
Two passionate individuals fighting for racial equality have found that one way to inspire others is by being the change they wish to see in the world.
Jamestown Community College is set to host a residency on the cultural impact of the slave trade featuring three free events that are open to the public from Monday to Wednesday.
The first event, a screening of the Emmy-nominated documentary, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday in the Hamilton Collegiate Center’s student union. After the film, Tom DeWolf will host a discussion. DeWolf is a descendant of one of the wealthiest slave trading families in the U.S. who participates in the journey portrayed in the documentary.
According to DeWolf, the idea for the film came from producer and director Katrina Browne, a distant cousin of his.
“She invited siblings to seventh cousins to join her in exploring the family history when she discovered that she was directly descended from the largest slave trading dynasty in U.S. history,” DeWolf said. “There were a total of 10 of us who joined Katrina in retracing the triangle trade route of the slave traders.”
DeWolf and the team spent time in Rhode Island, which he said is the largest slave trading state in the history of the U.S., and was responsible for more than half of all the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, for perspective, DeWolf noted that only 4 percent of the global slave trade originated from the U.S. It was mostly from England, Portugal and other European countries, he said.
“To make the film we retraced the triangle trade route from Bristol, R.I., where the family was headquartered, to Ghana, in West Africa, to Cuba where the family owned six sugar and coffee plantations before heading back to Rhode Island,” DeWolf said. “I wrote my first book, ‘Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History,’ about my experience of that journey and what came after for me and my family.
“Really the takeaway for me is understanding the totality of our nation’s history and not running away or hiding from the more unsavory parts that are difficult for us to want to face,” DeWolf continued. “I think a lot of it is the recognition that we’ve not been open and honest in the way that we’ve taught history in the past, and that we have an opportunity to do a much better job now. It’s an obligation to really understand one’s history in order to understand who we are today as a nation, communities and individuals. It’s our responsibility to deal with the present day consequences of these historic traumatic wounds that we’ve never dealt with effectively.”
GATHERING AT THE TABLE
The second event, “Gather at the Table,” is set for Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Scharmann Theatre. The presentation will feature DeWolf and Sharon Morgan. Morgan is a genealogical researcher, author and social justice advocate whose ancestors were once slaves. DeWolf and Morgan will discuss their book, “Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade.”
The intention of the book was to enter into each other’s lives and families very deeply and to try to understand all of what they saw on their journey from two perspectives: a black woman who grew up in Chicago and a white guy who lives in rural Oregon. The idea of gathering at the table, DeWolf said, was also to stay at the table even when the conversation gets tough.
“Sharon and I made the commitment to just deal with us – what could two people do to understand and impact slavery and racism,” DeWolf said. ” Sharon and I have been to 27 different states, to the Caribbean to stay for three weeks in the last great plantation house in Tobago, we visited the scene of the crime by going to civil rights monuments, to Mississippi where murder happened and to the site where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. We grappled with these things together, laughed together, cried together and yelled at each other as we worked through all of this. In the process, we became friends.”
DeWolf and Morgan’s friendship blossomed into a relationship much greater than either could have imagined from the onset – impacting each in ways that inspired positive, progressive change.
“It totally changed my life,” Morgan said. “We sometimes laugh that I was a really angry person when I met Tom. When we decided to undertake the journey that ended up in the book I was really trying to resolve a lot of issues in my life. As a genealogist, the more you look back in history, particularly my own family – the more angry I would become. It is unfathomable that all of America built its wealth on slavery, and my ancestors were the ones who provided the labor while Tom’s ancestors got rich. Being locked in a car together on our more than 6,000-mile trip really ended up being a transformation. I’m far less angry, am able to accept and to become forgiving. I’ve seen that we really could get over this race thing if we engaged in relationships like this.”
The third and final event of the residency is set for noon on Wednesday in the Scharmann Theatre. DeWolf and Morgan will continue their discourse during a presentation entitled “History and Healing: Two Perspectives.”
“We’re making a bridge,” Morgan said. “We are formed by what happened in the past, so there’s no denying that we are the sum of our experiences and we are also the sum of what happened to our ancestors. So, how do you change the paradigm? Well, there has to be a moment when somebody decides it’s going to change and that they are going to change it.”
“People are going to learn stuff they don’t know, laugh, think and be presented with information that will be useful in your everyday life – ways in which you can make a difference in the community,” DeWolf added. “I think that by-and-large people want to make a difference in the world. People want justice, equality, fairness and a level playing field. And, what Sharon and I bring is some practical tools that people can use to make a positive difference in the world. It wasn’t the president, the senators or the congressman who made the civil rights movement happen – it was Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, John Lewis and Martin Luther King. It starts in the hearts and minds of individuals.”
Jamestown Community College is located at 525 Falconer St. in Jamestown. For more information, call 338-1047 or visit www.sunyjcc.edu.