Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History
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by Thomas Norman DeWolf
Hardcover: 272 pages
Book Review by Kam Williams
Most Americans think of slavery as an institution which primarily benefited Southern plantation owners. However, truth be told, the North profited just as much from the evil enterprise. For not only was slavery legal there for over 200 years, but the bulk of the trafficking in human chattel was also run from the region.
Today, most of the descendants of such slave traders maintain a ’willful silence’ about their ancestors' legacy, and are raised safely separated from African-Americans. Nonetheless, they live in fear of ’losing our privilege, money, and respect’ according to Thomas Norman DeWolf, ’even when those things are unearned or phony.’ DeWolf, author of the author of Inheriting the Trade, knows whereof he speaks, because his own kin had been the most successful slave-trading family in the history of the United States.
In fact, one of his forbears, Senator James DeWolf of Rhode Island, was the second richest person in the country at the time of his death in 1837. Moreover, the long-hidden truth revealed here indicates that, with the help of President Thomas Jefferson, he had been able to continue buying and selling Africans for years after the practice had technically been declared illegal.
The author only started learning about the strange fruit on his family tree in 2001, reading entries from an overseer's journal on one of the DeWolf family sugar plantations in Cuba:
That summer, he and nine other relatives decided to explore their genealogy thoroughly by retracing the route of the Triangle Trade, from New England to West Africa and back to the Americas via the Middle Passage.
DeWolf's transformational journey is recounted in this
moving, intimate and brutally honest memoir, which is compelling
on its own, but should likewise serve as a fitting companion
book to the family's upcoming TV special, ’Traces of the Trade,’
airing on PBS on Tuesday, June 24th at 10PM. (Check local
Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North PBS -
To see a trailer of Traces of the Trade PBS Special