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June 20, 2008

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice rose to power and influence against odds that must have seemed insurmountable at the time to a young black woman from Birmingham, Alabama. She was only eight years old when, in 1963, four young girls, including Rice's friend Denise McNair, were killed in her hometown by a bomb planted in their church by white supremacists. This week Secretary Rice pronounced herself, "...gratified, but not surprised", by Senator Obama's victory in the Democratic presidential primaries. She said, "As an American, it's a great thing. As a black American, it's a great thing." And she went on to express her belief that America is slowly but surely overcoming what she calls the country's "birth defect" of "racial inequality."

BILL MOYERS: But we're not there yet. Despite the success of Americans like Rice and Obama, we're still coping with the legacy of slavery and segregation. That's the subject of this broadcast, with my guests who think we may be at a defining moment in our history.

We begin with a preview of a moving film that will premiere next week on the public television series P.O.V. Be sure to watch it. You will see a story of how the descendents of one of America's first families discovered their own kin's complicity in the slave trade. "Traces of the Trade" is narrated by its producer and director, Katrina Browne.

KATRINA BROWNE: Every year my family would get together for July Fourth in Bristol, Rhode Island. It was a big deal 'cause Bristol boasts the longest running Fourth of July parade in the country. We'd watch the parade from the lawn of Linden Place. This big white mansion used to belong to my relatives. It's right in the center of town. This is me age two with my mother and grandmother. Here's me age three bossing my brother around.

KATRINA BROWNE: My DeWolf ancestors were known as the "Great Folk" in Bristol. There were professors and writers, artists and architects, and many Episcopal ministers. I was proud to be related to them. It never occurred to me to ask how we got so established.

KATRINA BROWNE: What no one in my family realized was that the DeWolfs were the largest slave-trading family in US history. They brought over 10,000 Africans to the Americas in chains. Half a million of their descendants could be alive today.

BILL MOYERS: Katrina Browne asked members of her extended family to meet at Bristol's Episcopal church to begin a journey into the past.

KATRINA BROWNE: The church was pretty much new to me because I grew up in Philadelphia, where I was steeped in America's democratic ideals. In Bristol, it seems like the DeWolfs were the founding fathers. They were everywhere in the church; they even paid for the stained glass.

BILL MOYERS: Some in the family and even the town itself were reluctant for the story to be told.

KATRINA BROWNE: Linden Place was also concerned about our journey. The mansion was built in 1810 by George DeWolf, one of the two most prominent slave traders in the family. Linden Place stayed in family hands until 1989 when it was turned into a museum. Some museum board members were worried about advertising this connection of Linden Place to slavery. They didn't let us film inside. So we just passed by.

KATRINA BROWNE: Down at the harbor is James DeWolf's warehouse. This is where rum went out and sugar and molasses came in. James is the one who really masterminded the family take-over of all aspects of the trade. By the end of his life in 1837 he was supposedly the second richest man in the United States.

KATRINA BROWNE: At the Bristol Historical Society, tucked away in a corner on the second floor, there was a file cabinet, full of DeWolf papers. These eerie records revealed the details of the logical economic model that the DeWolfs developed from 1769 to 1820. Here's how they made it work.

KATRINA BROWNE: First they got the financing together. They recruited fellow townspeople to buy shares in their voyages and eventually started their own bank. They also started an insurance company to cover the risk. Rum was the prime currency of the slave trade, so James acquired a distillery from his father-in-law. The DeWolfs also purchased ships, mostly from builders in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The ships took rum to the Guinea Coast to trade for Africans. "July 4th, 1795, bought nine prime slaves, one woman and eight men and paid for them tobacco, rum, hats, bread, mackerel." Many of the enslaved Africans were brought to work on plantations that the DeWolfs established in Cuba. These plantations supplied sugar and molasses needed to make the rum back in Bristol. They also served as holding places for Africans while the DeWolfs waited for slave prices to go up at auction. "Havana, Sept. 11, 1806, John DeWolf of Bristol, Sale of 121 Negroes." Total income: 36,300 dollars, which today equals 553,000 dollars.

KATRINA BROWNE: The largest number of slaves were sold in Havana and Charleston. But Rhode Island slavers did business in more than 40 markets in the West Indies, North and South America. Rhode Island became the state most complicit in the American slave trade. Rum, Africans, sugar, rum. The efficient wheels of the Triangle Trade were set in motion again and again.

KATRINA BROWNE: And then there's one more detail. The slave trade was illegal for most of the time the DeWolfs were practicing it. To maneuver around the law, they secured a political favor from none other than President Thomas Jefferson, whose campaign they'd supported. Jefferson appointed their brother-in-law as Bristol's customs official. This man always happened to be looking the other way as DeWolf ships went in and out of harbor.

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