—by Katrina Browne
When I was in my late 20s, my grandmother revealed something to me about my ancestors.
They were slave traders.
The DeWolfs from Rhode Island sent ships to Africa. They sold people at auction. They did this throughout the Caribbean and the American South. One family member actually traveled from Rhode Island to Charleston, South Carolina, to start an auction house. These revelations flew in the face of what I’d believed—that I came from a long line of upright Yankees, upstanding citizens, good church people.
When my cousin and I first talked about it, she said that if they were our ancestors, they must have been “polite slave traders” because we have always been very polite. But she knew there is no such thing as a polite slave trader, just as there is no such thing as a polite slaveholder, despite all the mythology about “good” masters. When we took in the facts about our ancestors, there was a reckoning. That reckoning demanded a new worldview.
Repenting for the sins of slavery and segregation and racism is not an everyday moment for most Americans. When we do talk about these sins, we may each bring different emotions—sorrow, wariness, weariness, nervousness, excitement, relief, numbness, anger, hope and more.
Many African-American families in the Carolinas are no doubt descended from people brought on DeWolf ships. To those of you reading this whose families trace back to plantations in this region, I want to express profound sadness and regret about the unfathomable suffering endured in your families, arcing back through time. Words are inadequate; the harm was enormous.
To those of you reading this who are white, it might seem natural to think that those of us alive today don’t need to repent for the sins of our forebears. Yet as the church, we arguably inherited the good and the bad, the gifts and the burdens of this institution. Similarly, members of the U.S. House and the Senate apologized for slavery in the summers of 2008 and 2009 respectively because they understood themselves as members of an institution that has continuity through time. Second, repentance (from the word metanoia, meaning to change direction or change one’s mind) is about turning away from one worldview and turning toward a new one. It’s about repenting of sinful ways and coming back to God. When we apply this to the history and legacy of slavery, each of us of European descent, whatever our family history, can find many things to change our hearts and minds about, to hear anew and see anew.
So what does the work of repentance look like? What does it mean to become friends in Christ across racial divides—to love in the face of all that gets in our way? What does it look like to rebuild the ruined cities, the foundations of many generations?
First, it looks like learning the history in detail. As a mentor of mine, the Rev. Cannon Edward Rodman, once told me: “For an apology and repentance to be real, you have to know what you are apologizing for!” You see, churches were often complicit in the institution of slavery and the subsequent history of segregation and discrimination. Churches also often derived economic benefits from the institution of slavery and from segregation and discrimination.
We often think we know all about the history of slavery and the moral of the story. But I can tell you that learning my own family’s history led to one revelation after another, profoundly altering my sense of the past and the present. My family and I decided to spend time retracing the Triangular Trade route of our ancestors, learning about and documenting the massive extent of Northern complicity in slavery. Yes, Northerners. It could be argued that Northerners were more responsible for the slave trade than the South, since they brought raw materials from the South and the Caribbean and processed them in their factories; financed and insured the trade; held enslaved people for more than 200 years; and like everyone in the United States, consumed goods produced with slave labor. Slavery built the nation—not just the South. This is likely not news to you if you are a Southerner. But it can be a seismic, humbling shift in perception for white Americans outside of the South. Even the Irish immigrants on my dad’s side who arrived in the U.S. after slavery benefited from it. The Land of Opportunity they sought existed only because this booming economy was built on unpaid labor.
This is an invitation to the whole church—each congregation and each individual—to uncover the details of our relationships to slavery, segregation and racism. As a predominantly white institution, we do this not as an exercise in white guilt, but as an exercise of friendship, love and trust in where God’s abundant grace will go. I found this to be true, even as I held archival documents confirming my family’s sins in my hands. I felt my heart and my spirit move to new places.
Katrina Browne is a speaker, facilitator and producer/director of the Emmy-nominated documentary, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North (PBS 2008). She has developed a film-based race dialogue series for Becoming Beloved Community, a racial justice and reconciliation initiative of the Episcopal Church (available to other denominations as well). Learn more at tracesofthetrade.org and episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground.
This article is excerpted from the November 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.