Thomas DeWolf speaks at Iowa Central
Author Thomas Norman DeWolf spoke Tuesday at Iowa Central Community College about the legacy of slavery.
DeWolf authored the books “Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History” and “Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade.”
“So much of our nation’s history is couched in secrets,” DeWolf said. “Everybody in this room, I suspect, has secrets. Shameful episodes that we try to keep buried.”
DeWolf discovered he was a descendant of James DeWolf, who owned the largest slave trading venture in U.S. history. The triangle slave trade went from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba. In 2001, Thomas DeWolf traveled with distant cousins for the documentary film “Traces of Our Trade” to learn about his ancestor, a Rhode Island senator in 1821. He found greater truths about slavery as an economic driving force, as well.
“I learned new truths about myself, about my ancestors, and about the founding of the United States,” he said. “Throughout our country’s history, white people have benefited as a direct result of the riches in land, money and prestige that were gained because of slavery.”
DeWolf said a question he often hears about slavery is “Why can’t people get over it?”
“It’s easy to agree that slavery prior to the Civil War was wrong,” he said. “It’s much more difficult for white people to reflect on the systemic racism that endures today. Our nation was founded on the ideals of equality and freedom, but these unalienable rights have never been secured once and for all for all people. There’s a perpetual struggle.
“The reality is, the issues of race continue to impact all of us.”
DeWolf spoke about his ancestor, as well as being related to abolitionists, Herman Melville (the DeWolf name is references in “Moby Dick”) and others, as revealed by genealogical research.
“If you search your family history, the history of most families, like the history of the United States, is a complex mix of heroes and heels,” he said.
DeWolf described a trip he took for the documentary to Ghana, to a slave dungeon on the coast, owned by his ancestor. Within, more than 200 slaves were kept in a bare concrete room 15 feet by 30 feet before being shipped to various ports.
In his research and travels, DeWolf learned much about the economics of slavery.
“Slavery was a national institution that benefited not just rich people but also middle class people and immigrant families, as well,” he said. “Workers in all regions and in every state benefited economically from slavery and slavery-related businesses.”
Relative to white people, DeWolf said, “black people fall on the negative side of virtually any measurable social indicator.” Infant mortality rates are higher, health insurance coverage is higher and median income rate is 55 percent lower, among other statistics.
“Strikingly, the average white American is going to live five and a half years longer than the average black American, unless you’re talking only about men, then the difference is seven years,” he said.
Everyone is involved in this, DeWolf said, and most are blind to their own privilege.
“Everybody is connected in the past and everybody is connected in the present,” he said. “These traumatic wounds have never been healed. I don’t feel any particular connection to the system of slavery any more now than I did before I knew about it. The reality is, I have a connection because of my privilege of being a white man.”
With systemic racism still prevalent, DeWolf advocating openly address these issues.
“To confront these issues that continue to divide us,” he said, “This is the responsibility of all who claim to believe in truth and justice. And let’s celebrate our successes. We’ve come a long way since slavery was the law of the land, since Jim Crow laws ended and civil rights were promises to all.”