Filmmaker Katrina Browne screens “Traces of the Trade” Wednesday night

By Kate Olesin, Collegian Staff

Facing the past is something many people dread. But when Katrina Browne discovered her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in the United States, it prompted her to take action and create a documentary film.

The film ‘Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North’ will be shown at the University of Massachusetts tomorrow evening with a question-and-answer period featuring Browne and two family members after the screening.

‘Traces of the Trade’ depicts the history of the DeWolf family and serves as an attempt to debunk the myth that the American South was solely responsible for slavery. In fact, Rhode Island had the largest share of the slave trade than any other state, according to the film’s website.

What is especially chilling about the family history is the extent of their involvement in the slave trade.

‘Over the generations, the family owned 47 ships that transported thousands of Africans across the Middle Passage into slavery,’ the film’s website reads. ‘They amassed an enormous fortune. By the end of his life, James DeWolf had been a U.S. Senator and was reportedly the second-richest man in the United States.’

The film received the Courage in Filmmaking award by the Women Film Critics Circle, who also deemed it as one of the three best of 2008. It has received positive reviews by The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others. In addition, the film appeared on PBS in June 2008.

The documentary is being presented in honor of Black History Month, but is also intended to educate the campus community about the legacy that slavery holds in not just the United States, but specifically in the northern states.

‘Particularly in New England we think we can take a pass on slavery because we weren’t necessarily the slave owner,’ said University Health Services health educator Tom Schiff, also an organizer for the event. ‘But yet here we have a history where an incredible amount of wealth was accumulated through the trafficking of human beings.’

Schiff worked with groups such as the Women of Color Leadership Network, the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and other Minority Students and the Malcolm X Cultural Center to put the event together. But he happens to be a personal friend and former colleague of one of the family members in the film, Holly Fulton.

Fulton, who formerly lived in Deerfield, Mass., before moving to Colorado and then back to the east coast in Peabody, Mass., will be present, along with her husband, William Peebles, after the film to answer questions. Before launching the film, she was a senior staff member at and AmeriCorps program she co-founded in 1991 called Public Allies, according to the film’s website.

But Schiff hopes the film will not only be an educational supplement for those pursuing subjects related to the topics in the film, but that it will keep up what he calls the University’s ‘progressive’ attitude toward histories and topics of race.

‘I think that a film like this, as well as other educational efforts that happen, allow us to continue to fill in the pictures of history ‘- the realities of history,’ he said. ‘It’s not about trying about making people feel guilty about [slavery] but take a really hard look about what we have been and what we can be.’

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North’ will be shown at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4 in Bartlett Hall 65 with a question- and-answer period following the screening. The showing is free and open to the public. To learn more about the film visit

Kate Olesin can be reached at [email protected]