Growing Up White
From Chapter 1: Growing Up White
“Here we are,” says Katrina Browne, leaning forward in her chair with a welcoming smile. She appears calm for someone haunted by ghosts.
Her eyes flit from face to face and her smile gives way to a tiny laugh. Today is July 1, 2001. Nine of us, four men and five women, sit in a circle of chairs on the back porch of a white clapboard house near Bristol, Rhode Island. The house is surrounded by trees and bushes so thick I can’t tell how close the nearest neighbors live. I feel detached from the rest of the world. The only sounds intruding upon the silence are those we make, and those of the birds. I can smell the ocean from here.
These people are my distant cousins. I met most of them for the first time earlier this morning at church and have met Katrina once before. She looks cool in her short hair and sleeveless blouse despite the summer heat. A trickle of sweat slithers down inside my long-sleeved shirt, tickling my right side. I discreetly brush my bicep against my ribcage to stem the current and then wipe droplets from my forehead with my fingers.
Katrina’s calm vanishes as she begins to speak about why we are here: how she learned from her grandmother about her slave-trading ancestors, and decided to make a documentary film that will expose the horror of our family’s past. I don’t know if it’s the subject matter, the camera, speaking in front of us, or simply the culmination of more than three years of work and anticipation on her part, but Katrina now appears fragile and troubled. She speaks in a hushed voice for many minutes, pausing, stopping, looking down at her fidgeting hands, then up at some of us.
Finally,she sits in silence. A voice interrupts from the side. “Can you do it again?” Jude Ray, the film’s co-director, says she needs to be more concise and make her voice stronger.
Liz Dory, the director of photography, shoulders the professional-grade video camera focused in close-up on Katrina’s face. Jeff Livesey, the sound man, holds the boom microphone above her head. We have Liz to thank for our seating in direct sunlight. A large umbrella was removed because the shadows fouled up her shots. It’s supposed to get up to about ninety today, but it feels much hotter. Jude, Liz, and Jeff stand with the confident air of people who’ve been on many film sets.
“Umm, I…” Tears well up in Katrina’s eyes. The corners of her mouth begin to turn up in a smile, but drop as she looks down again. The glowing red light on the camera indicates that Liz continues to record.
One of the men in the group rises, spreads his arms, and smiles. “How about a group hug?” This is Dain Perry. Dressed in khaki shorts, a light shirt, and broad-brimmed straw hat to shade his head, he appears to be in his mid-fifties. I exhale the breath I’ve been hold-ing, glad that Dain has broken the tension. Dark patches of sweat dot his shirt as well. We all stand and embrace, resting our arms around each others’ shoulders or waists for several silent moments. Though Dain’s gesture seems intended to support Katrina, this feels like the first time we’ve all actually connected.
When we sit back down, the tears fall from Katrina’s eyes. She explains that when she was in her late twenties she read a booklet about her family history written by her grandmother. She hesitates and looks down again. “It’s hard and scary to know that one is connected to evil people. There was so much family pride.”
Now she felt far from proud. She could not say out loud to anyone that she was descended from slave traders. “And, um…” She looks again from face to face. She wipes her tears, takes a deep breath, and smiles. Her voice becomes stronger.
She explains that the intense part was not just the shock of discovering her slave-trading ancestry, but the realization that on some level she knew already but had buried it. “I prided myself on being self-aware and self-reflective in thinking about issues of race and society and yet I had managed to completely repress the fact that I was descended from slave traders.”
Her voice becomes more animated as she explains that in read-ing the booklet, “I just knew instantly that I already knew. But I have no idea when I first found out, how I found out, who told me, how I reacted, and yet this is a pretty big deal. So I started asking questions about our family and about this buried history of New England.” She explains that she started out on a solo journey but realized it needed to be a family process. She is honored that we’ve chosen to join her.
“A lot of people who aren’t here are totally supportive,” says Elly, another cousin who flew from the west coast to be here. Elly works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle, moni-toring Superfund Sites. Like me, she’s never met any of these peo-ple before. Her long, dark hair is held back in a ponytail.
Elly’s right. Many family members Katrina contacted, as well as friends and colleagues, of hers and ours, applaud her efforts. There are also people who oppose the project. Some live in Bristol, and in-deed, some are family members.
The oldest of the women present—about sixty, not quite twice Katrina’s age—introduces herself with careful and deliberate words.
I sense a burden even heavier than the one Katrina bears. With no hint of a smile, she looks off into the distance and then down at the deck as she begins to speak. “Well, my name today is Keila DePoorter. I say ‘today’ because when I was young I was christened Edith Howe Fulton. I’m Holly’s oldest sister.” She smiles at the woman sitting next to her. “She’s the youngest in the family and I’m the oldest. Changing my name, which I did back in 1975, was part of my effort to move away from family. I was named after my grandmother Edith Howe, and I adored her. But carrying that name felt like this heavy thing for me when I was young. It had a lot of nonverbal expectation.”
Like Katrina, Keila continues to shift her gaze back and forth from the patio deck to us as she speaks. “I grew up here in Bristol. My grandparents had a dairy farm across the street from where we lived and I don’t ever remember not just being in love with animals. I lived from one summer to the next. We lived in Providence in the wintertime, which I suffered through to go back to Bristol, to go back to the farm. That’s where my heart was, on the land, with the animals.
“When I was ten years old I would get up at four-thirty in the morning to help with morning milking. I loved working with the farmers. They felt so real to me. They weren’t playing this strange game that my family played that I just could not identify with.” Elizabeth, the youngest of the women, nods and smiles.”There were times when I used to think,’I wish I was an animal, I don’t like being a human being. I don’t like seeing what grown-ups do.'”
I sit to Keila’s right with crossed legs, my hands folded in my lap.
“My life has felt like a struggle because I love my family so much.” She says she’s always felt “pushed-pulled,” a phrase I’ve never heard before but know exactly what she means. Looking down, Keila tilts her head and a smile begins to form as she tells us that one of the unwritten rules in her family was something called the No Talk Rule.
Holly lifts her hands from her knees and with an exaggerated expression mouths the words, “It’s big…”
Keila chuckles and nods her head in agreement with her sister. “It’s very big. You don’t talk about unpleasant things. There’s a line in one of our family books that one of our ancestors said, that we should never talk about sex. What were the others?” She looks to Holly.
“Religion,” Keila repeats.
“I think politics,” says Holly.
“Right,” says Keila. “And the last one was ‘and the Negroes.'”
I look from face to face as people nod and chuckle uncomfortably. What am I doing here? Though I am distantly related, I’m the only one here who isn’t descended from slave traders, not directly anyway. I feel another trickle of sweat, on my left side this time.
This place is foreign to me. I live in Bend, Oregon, about as far from Bristol as you can get, and not just geographically. How have I ended up with this group of virtual strangers, speaking about such un-pleasant things?
Twenty years ago, David Howe, a friend of mine, told me he sus-pected we might be related because his father’s middle name is DeWolf. He was right. My wife, Lindi, and I first met David’s father in 1986. Halsey DeWolf Howe and his wife, Carol, invited us to spend the night with them on our way through Massachusetts on our honeymoon. After dinner, Halsey explained my connection to David.
“Your father and David are sixth cousins, as you can see here.” He pointed to a name at the top of the genealogy chart he’d created to delineate my relationship to David. “Charles DeWolf is the com-mon ancestor. He was born in 1695 and probably died in Guadeloupe in the West Indies. Our line descends from one of his sons, Mark Antony DeWolf. You descend from his older brother, Simon.”
Halsey grew up in Bristol, as have generations of Mark Antony DeWolf’s descendants. They used to gather at one of the old DeWolf mansions, Linden Place, for a family reunion each year to watch the Fourth of July parade. Halsey regaled me all evening with stories of a time and place long past, filled with eccentric characters. He began with James DeWolf, the man most responsible for the family’s fame and fortune.
“Captain Jim was a true scoundrel in every sense of the word. He was a slave trader, rum runner, and privateer.” Visions of the Disneyland ride Pirates of the Caribbean entered my mind. James DeWolf became a United States senator and amassed a fortune from his adventurous exploits.
Linden Place was built by James’s nephew George DeWolf. George’s daughter,Theodora,married Christopher Colt,the brother of Samuel Colt, who invented the revolver. There were once several mansions in Bristol owned by the family, but only Linden Place re-mains standing today.
Mark Antony’s grandson “Nor’west” John DeWolf sailed from Bristol around South America and north along the coast of the Oregon Territory in 1805 to Vancouver Island and Alaska on a fur-trading mission. He sold his ship and traversed the fifty-five hundred miles overland across Siberia from east to west. He then sailed back home to Bristol.1 He wed Mary Melville and became uncle to young Herman, whose imagination was stirred by the seafaring tales of his uncle “Nor’west” John. Melville had his own adventures at sea before eventually writing Moby Dick, where “Captain D’Wolf” appears in chapter 45. (D’Wolf was an alternate spelling of DeWolf.)
William DeWolf Hopper, who played Paul Drake on the Perry Mason television series, boasted ties to Bristol through his father and grandmother. (William’s mother was the notorious gossip col-umnist Hedda Hopper.) Theodora and Christopher Colt’s grandson furnished the other notable theatrical connection when he married the famous actress Ethel Barrymore, who once lived at Linden Place.
Listening to Halsey, I felt like a child sitting enthralled at the feet of a master storyteller.Throughout that night, and for months after, I focused not on the more unsavory acts of my newly discovered rel-atives, but on the fact that I was related to Hoppers, Colts, Barrymores, and Melvilles.I became obsessed with genealogy and making connections with distant cousins, dead or alive, famous or not.
In December 2000, David received a letter from Katrina, who is the daughter of his cousin Libby, and shared it with me.
Dear kith and kin,
I’m writing with information and invitations related to the documentary film project I have embarked upon about our mutual DeWolf ancestors and the slave trade.
Two and a half years ago I decided to produce a documentary about the DeWolfs, the role of New England in slavery, and the legacy of all this in the present. For all the progress that has been made in race relations and racial equality, the disparity in social opportunity and life prospects is still huge and the lack of trust still profound between blacks and whites.
So I want to begin with our family and try to better understand the whole can of worms: privilege, shelteredness, productive feelings of guilt, unproductive feelings of guilt, fear, etc.
I would like to invite fellow descendants to do the journey with me—literally, as well as existentially. I will be organizing a 3-part journey: 1) a gathering in Rhode Island; 2) then a trip to Cuba and West Africa; which 3) will culminate back in Rhode Island again.
I invite you to think about the possibility of participating in these gatherings and voyages.
I had never heard of Katrina Browne and didn’t know how we were related, but was amazed by her letter. At David’s suggestion, I called Katrina. In February 2001, Lindi and I drove from Bend to her apartment in Berkeley, where she had attended seminary, to discuss her project. Though she hadn’t sent me the letter, she asked me to participate in the journey because she thought I could bring a unique perspective: that of a family member whose direct ancestors were not slave traders.
Once I agreed to go, doubts began to surface. Katrina sought to confront the legacy of slavery and its impact on relations between black and white Americans today. The fact was that my interaction with black people was limited. I grew up in Pomona, California, which had a sizable African American population, but the last time I interacted regularly with black people was in the late 1960s at Palomares Junior High School.Though we shared classes, acted together in school plays, went to dances, and played sports together, my most powerful memories were of fear. This was shortly after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles and race relations were tense. I was never attacked by any black classmates, though I was threatened several times. I always backed down, quite willing to appear weak if it helped me avoid a bloody nose.
There were plenty of fights between blacks and whites at school, both during school hours and after school, and at the park up the street. I remember the afternoon when everyone knew Larry and Greg were going to fight. Their battle had been brewing for weeks. Larry was surrounded by black kids urging him on just like Greg was encouraged by white kids. A huge crowd gathered outside by the lockers after school.
Greg and Larry came from opposite directions. Greg barely removed his jacket before Larry punched him hard in the face and knocked him over a bench. Greg sprung up to fight back but was no match for the quicker black boy. The fight lasted mere moments before police intervened. It was as if they had been watching from behind the lockers, as if they knew in advance. Larry soon sat handcuffed in the back of a police car. He stared straight ahead, his jaw rigid, head held high.
As the crowd dispersed, I watched Greg walk away with his friends, a rag held to his bloody face. I couldn’t understand why the police only arrested Larry. I didn’t ask.
By 1969, Martin Luther King’s call for nonviolent protest and reconciliation between the races was a distant memory as far as I was concerned. I recall police in full riot gear patrolling the halls of my school almost every day. My parents worried for our safety, so my father began picking up my sister and me after school. Ninth grade became my last in public schools. I had tried to make friends with black classmates, but three years at Palomares taught me that for the most part, two separate planets circled within the larger school solar system: blacks hung out with other blacks and whites with whites.
My parents enrolled us at Western Christian High School, a private parochial school, where there were no black students, and we moved several miles from Pomona to Glendora, where there were fewer black people. Racial tension, and its accompanying fear, disappeared from my life like spilled water on the hot California sidewalk.
In spite of a few unpleasant incidents, I recall my childhood with great fondness. I watched Leave It to Beaver on television, and lived a sheltered Leave It to Beaver life. I spent long summer days at the beach, played games with my friends, and cheered for the Dodgers. We attended First Christian Church in Pomona every Sunday. My parents were married there in 1951 and still attend today. My clos-est friends in junior high and high school were kids at First Christian, many of whom were also fellow members of Boy Scout Troop 102, which was sponsored by our church.
Two of those friends, Mitchell and Michael, were twins and bi-racial. Their mother was Italian and their father was black. Race didn’t seem to enter the equation with them. Though their skin was darker than mine, we were simply friends. I never understood why many of my black classmates at school were so angry, not to men-tion the black people I saw on the news. I remember wondering why race relations couldn’t be easy, like I assumed my relationships with Mitch and Mike were. As I think about it now, I realize I was too young and naive, and perhaps self-absorbed, to ever ask Mitch and Mike how they felt about it.
In September 1972, I moved a thousand miles north from my parents’ home to the dorms at Northwest Christian College in Eu-gene, Oregon. I saw very few black students on my college campus, and the majority weren’t African American—they were African. Battles at NCC were over interpretation of Bible verses, not race re-lations. I got married in 1974 and my wife gave birth to our two daughters.
I spent six years—instead of the normal four—in undergraduate studies at both NCC and the University of Oregon, which stand adjacent to each other. After graduating from both in 1978, I moved to Bend, in Central Oregon, where I owned and managed a movie theater and restaurant and where I met David Howe. I divorced and remarried. I was elected to the city council in 1992, and to the county commission—as a Republican—in 1998, the job I would hold until 2005. I saw few black people anywhere in Oregon. I thought less and less about the tension I once felt between blacks and whites. It was no longer part of my world.
I was excited to join Katrina to further investigate my family ancestry and to travel to Africa and Cuba. I looked forward to be-coming more global in my thinking and awareness, but I was simultaneously anxious. This was going to be an expensive journey where I’d confront issues that I recognized more and more I’d rather not deal with. My anxiety was prescient. My exposure to issues of race would change dramatically in 2001—and in unimagined ways for which my life hadn’t prepared me.
Excerpted with permission from Inheriting the Trade by Thomas Norman DeWolf. Beacon Press, Boston, © 2008.
Thomas Norman DeWolf was born and raised in Pomona, California. Tom began writing Inheriting the Trade in 2001, during the summer in which he joined Katrina Browne and eight distant cousins on their life-altering journey to Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba, to make the film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. He has been writing full time since 2005. Tom and his wife, Lindi, live in Oregon. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.