Slave Traders In The Family

by Jan Henrikson

It wasn’t the typical family reunion. Tucsonan Jim Perry and nine of his family members stood in the dark in the heart of a male slave dungeon in Ghana. Their ancestor, James D’Wolf, likely stood in this hellish cavern approximately 200 years earlier, not as a slave, but as a slave trader.

D’Wolf, speaker of the Rhode Island House, U.S. senator, and one of the richest slave traders in American history, was the impetus for the family’s journey through Bristol, Rhode Island, Ghana and Cuba, They wanted to retrace the path of their most horrific ancestor, and they brought a film crew along to record the experience.

“The story in the family is that he (James D’Wolf) had all these businesses,” explains Perry, who grew up with vague, hushed knowledge about D’Wolf, “but they all related to slave-trading.” D’Wolf's father, brothers, and nephews all worked in the slave-trading business. D’Wolf, however, seemed to have a special knack for it. He traded slaves from 1787 until 1807, when Rhode Island law prohibited it. He bought sugar plantations in Cuba. The sugar became molasses that was turned into rum in D’Wolf’s Rhode Island distilleries. He traded the rum for slaves in Ghana.

Slaves were once packed, 1,000 at a time, into Cape Coast Castle, the dungeon in which the family members now gathered. In its three underground rooms—dank, but no longer smelling of human death—the family absorbed the nightmare. The slaves had absolutely no room to lie down, or even to sit. Each room had three troughs, not for food or bathing, but for urine and fecal matter. The slaves that survived these inhuman conditions were charged with dragging out the dead in the morning.

The family moved deep into the third room with the film crew. They were making more than a home video, They were filming a documentary funded with sizable grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, in addition to private funds. The entire trip was the brainchild of Katrina Browne, Perry’s cousin. Unlike Perry, she had never known about D’Wolf. As a young girl, she'd often marched in the Bristol, Rhode Island, Fourth of July celebration—one of the biggest in the nation—proud of her heritage and her country, never suspecting the family secret buried at Cape Coast Castle. The truth shocked her.

According to Perry, one of Browne’s original intentions was to “get conversations going about the past—about the North’s amnesia about its role in the slave trade. The North won the Civil War and so they wrote the history, saying the South is the bad guy and they had all the slaves,” says Perry. “The North had slaves until it became financially impractical to do so. She wants to change how history is written.”

Browne changed much more than that. In the dungeon, the battery failed on the camera, and the rooms shrank in darkness. The film crew was only permitted to film at night after visiting hours, so no light filtered in from outside. Browne seized the opportunity. “We're going to take this moment and have some quiet time here,” she said.

“So we went into silence with our eyes closed!” recalls Perry. “I couldn’t see or hear anybody, even when I opened my eyes to look. Soon I went into a place of terror: ‘Suppose they’ve all left and I’m all alone here, locked up for the night?’ I knew it was irrational, but it was a deep primal fear. Eventually I realized, ‘So what, if I’m here for the night? The men used to be locked up here indefinitely and left as either corpses or slaves packed onto slave ships.’”

Perry left a changed man. “It’s a sad story, a horrible story, and if it was gone, it’d be easier to look back on it and say that was terrible.... But that kind of inhumanity still exists. A man got murdered in Mesa, Arizona, right after the attack on the World Trade Center, apparently for no other reason than he was a Sikh. He was wearing a turban from India. That’s what still goes on in 2001.”

Spontaneous conversations and planned lectures throughout the rest of the trip deepened his awareness. He visited D’Wolf’s Cuban plantations, watched kids play on D’Wolfs burial mound in Bristol, Rhode Island. The combination of actually standing on historical ground, and the talk with professors, authors, and relatives about all aspects of race relations gave Perry new eyes.

“For me, just the experience of following in the footsteps of my ancestors in such a dramatic way has been life-changing. I got to know my family, and we became really close. Some of them I didn’t even know before. We learned so much, not just about family history, but about racism and white privilege, and that’s what really struck me. I knew white privilege because I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. But then I left the South, and life goes on and I just had never quite understood how privileged every white person is in this country. We think that’s what’s normal, but in the world, whites are a small minority. We go to school as kids and what we learn is the history of the white American, with tiny exceptions.”

Particularly poignant was the story of Mrs. C., an African-American woman married to one of D’Wolf’s descendants. She spoke in Bristol over Labor Day weekend when the 10 family members who had traveled so far shared their experiences with the loved ones and other family members who remained behind.

Mrs. C. recently had her four-story Cape Cod home appraised. When she saw the appraiser drive up around the garage, she waved for him to come in through the front door. He ignored her and entered through the back of the house.

“Maybe you want to start on the top floor,” she said.

“I know my business. I know how to do this," he shot back. “I’ll start where I want.”

Her story deeply moved Perry’s wife, poet Shirley Dunn Perry. “She knew that she was in danger," says Dunn Perry. “My pain in hearing this story—because it gets worse—is that she was unable to act in that moment. This beautiful, educated, articulate woman, in that moment, was unable to kick him out, or call her husband and have him kick him out. So he went through the house, including her office, and shoved her stuff aside, and worked from her office desk. The man was coming down the stairs and into the kitchen, talking on the cell phone, saying, ‘No, Mrs. C. is not at home. There is only the maid in the kitchen.’ A neighbor woman who was white, and who’d just happened to come over, screamed out, ‘This is Mrs. C!,’ and the man got quite flustered and left immediately.”

To Dunn Perry, this was much more than a racism issue. “It was an issue of superiority and arrogance and ignorance and abuse and structures that had been put in place that are invisible to the everyday eye until someone becomes more conscious,” explains Dunn Perry, who now asks herself: “What is my unconscious racial prejudice—the prejudice that I’m unaware of and that I act out everyday? And how can I come to consciousness and integrate that consciousness in a way that will make a difference?”

“We don’t tend to think of ourselves as white," adds Jim Perry. “We think of ourselves as people. People of color are faced with the color of their skin every day. And by not thinking about our whiteness, what are we perpetuating?”

For Perry, the point of the trip was not to fill his heart with guilt, but to open it with understanding. “Some of the family members feel a lot of guilt. I don’t," he says. “My feeling is: Ivm not responsible for what my ancestors did. James D’Wolf was one of 64 ancestors in that generation. So I had 63 out of 64 ancestors who were not slave traders. But I have the opportunity to make changes, not because I’m guilty, but because wrong has been done and if I have a little bit of a role in changing that, that’s important. Maybe this video will be on PBS or HBO and a whole lot of people will get changed by it. Maybe it will help to change race relations in this country.”

It has already sparked activity. Family members have united into various action groups. Perry’s group envisions educational programs that identify at-risk children and help them to fulfill their highest potential.

Referring to a proposal to pay damages to descendants of slaves, Perry states: “I don’t like the idea of reparations the way it’s usually presented: handing over a bunch of money to a bunch of people. Is it really going to change anything? I like the word repair. What can we do to repair some of the damage that’s been done? There’s been some good healthy change, but a huge percentage of the African-American population still grows up in poverty. The inner city ghettos have our worst school systems. Some whites say, ‘Oh, they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do it the way whites have done.’ But if you grow up that hopeless, and with nothing—no opportunity—a few may overcome that. There are wonderful examples, but they’re only a handful.”

Perry elaborates: “That needs to change. As a country we know how to identify at-risk children. A lot of people have developed small innovative programs for reaching children who are going to end up in jail, on drugs, or unemployed, and turning them around.  If we as a nation were to take on a major program identifying at-risk kids, not just descendants of slaves, but Native Americans, Asian Americans, Whites, Latinos, the whole color issue would disappear.”

The awakening of Perry and his wife, Shirley, has just begun. In addition to soul searching, they are dialoguing with friends and attending “Unlearning Racism” workshops sponsored by the YWCA. What would D’Wolf say if he could see his legacy?

Throughout this process, Dunn Perry’s heart holds the words from Mrs. C. “She spoke to us passionately about now that we’re all feeling our ‘do-goodness,’ to not run out and say ‘Oh, I’ve just got to start making a black friend.’ She was saying: ‘You need to educate your white family, your white brothers and sisters, your white neighbors, because that’s where you need to focus your attention, because we’re doing fine. And yes, there are things you can do, but don’t think you can just walk out there and start helping black people, because the word that is essential is allies. We need to create allies with one another. Not I’m the helper, you’re the one that needs help, but We’re in this together. Allies.’”

© Jan Henrickson, all rights reserved. “Slave Traders in the Family”
originally appeared in The DesertLeaf. Jan can be contacted at

Note: The "Jim Perry" in the photo credit is Jim's son, James DeWolf Perry VI.


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