“Traces of the Trade” Opens P.O.V.’s 2008 Season

P.O.V.’s Season 21 opens Tuesday, June 24, 2008 with a unique and disturbing journey of discovery into the history and “living consequences” of one of the nation’s most shameful episodes — slavery. In this bicentennial year of the U.S. abolition of the slave trade, one might think the tragedy of African slavery in the Americas has been exhaustively told. Katrina Browne thought the same, until she discovered that her slave-trading ancestors from Rhode Island were not an aberration. Rather, they were just the most prominent actors in the North’s vast complicity in slavery, buried in myths of Northern innocence.

Browne — a direct descendant of Mark Anthony DeWolf, the first slaver in the family — took the unusual step of writing to 200 descendants, inviting them to journey with her from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba and back, recapitulating the Triangle Trade that made the DeWolfs the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Nine relatives signed up. Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North is Browne’s spellbinding account of the journey that resulted.

As the film recounts, the DeWolf name has been honored over the generations in the family’s hometown of Bristol, R.I., and on the national stage. Family members have been prominent citizens: professors, writers, legislators, philanthropists, Episcopal priests and bishops. If the DeWolfs’ slave trading was mentioned at all, it was in an offhand way, with reference to scoundrels and rapscallions.

Then Browne’s grandmother opened the door a crack. She wrote a DeWolf history booklet with a brief but pointed reference to the slave trade, which caused Browne to look deeper. What Browne learned, and the journey she undertook with other DeWolf descendants, retracing early America’s infamous trade in rum, slaves and sugar, revealed secrets hidden in plain sight. Archival documents — from logs and diaries to detailed business correspondence, cancelled checks and sales records detailing a global economy — unsettle not just a family but also a nation’s assumptions about its not-so-distant history.

Traces of the Trade has its national broadcast premiere on Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 10 p.m. on PBS, beginning the 21st season of P.O.V. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, P.O.V. is public television’s premier showcase for point-of-view, nonfiction films and is a 2007 recipient of the Special News & Documentary Emmy Award for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking.

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