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Addressing Slavery and White Privilege

In Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, first-time filmmaker Katrina Browne makes a troubling discovery — her New England ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. She and nine fellow descendants set off to retrace the Triangle Trade: from their old hometown in Rhode Island to slave forts in Ghana to sugar plantation ruins in Cuba.

What can you do to address to legacy of slavery in your community?

Engage your local school district and text book companies in a dialogue about how to teach the history of the slave trade/slavery in ways that include the role of the North.

Honor the memory of those who were enslaved by researching your local history of slavery/slave trade and ancillary businesses. Engage local historic sites and museums in conversations about how to tell this history in their tours and exhibits (if it is not already being conveyed).

Read about the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 at the Library of Congress’s website, which granted reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned by the U.S. government during World War II. Compare the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 to H.R. 40, which seeks to commission a study of reparation proposals for African Americans.

In the film, Josephine Watts suggests that white people make a point of attending a black play or concert in order to experience — even briefly — what she experiences regularly as the only black person at a conference. If you have not had the experience of being part of a visible minority, make plans to attend an event where you are the only person of your race, ethnicity, or gender in the room. After the event, talk with others about what that experience was like for you and what lessons it had to offer about the daily experiences of racial and ethnic minorities.

Form a task force in your church, synagogue, mosque, school, civic group or fraternal order to examine the organization’s historic relationship to slavery. Develop suggestions for action that your group or institution might take to support healing past and present wounds based on race and racism.

Drawing on what you concluded from holding dialogue on the question of repair and reconciliation, determine what next steps you and others in your community can take to make a difference in the broader local or national discourse.


Tom DeWolf, one of the family members featured in the film, has written a book that shares more about the family journey: Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History(Beacon Press, 2008). Create a book club to read and discuss the book.

Read the articles on white privilege listed in the Resources section of this guide. Use the essays as a way to talk to others about the issue.

Research connections between Native American history, Latino history, Asian-American history and the history of African slavery and its aftermath. Find ways to include other perspectives in your discussions, including other people of color and those who identify as biracial or multiracial.

Research modern-day slavery and join with efforts to help abolish the practice.