James DeWolf Perry reveals a family connection to the American slave trade


PITTSFIELD -- Having heard stories that his relatives had dabbled in the slave trade, James DeWolf Perry was prompted by a distant cousin to start digging.

So, more than a decade ago, the Western Massachusetts native began researching his family tree and discovered he is a descendant of U.S. Sen. James DeWolf, the leading slave trader in U.S. history.

Sen. DeWolf, of Bristol, R.I. (1764-1837), was responsible for bringing 10,000 enslaved Africans to America, leading to 500,000 descendants the last 200 years, according to DeWolf Perry.

His subsequent research found Sen. DeWolf and the rest of New England was at the heart of -- not an innocent bystander to -- the slave trade, 75 percent of which went through New England prior to the Civil War.

"We had the family history very wrong," DeWolf Perry said. "This was big business and they tried to maximize the value of the slaves."

The jaw-dropping revelation was part of DeWolf Perry’s hour long presentation at Berkshire Community College Thursday afternoon, part of the BCC Forum series. The executive director of the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery also discussed the PBS documentary he and nine other DeWolf relatives appeared in 2008. "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North" revealed DeWolf Perry’s long-hidden past and how he and his relations have come to accept and learn from it.

DeWolf Perry showed clips of the film, written, produced and directed by a distant cousin, Katrina Browne. The film came about after he attended the funeral of Browne’s grandmother in 1999 where the whispers of the family’s untold history were getting louder.

"We wanted to get our history out there; we felt our country could benefit from the truth," De Wolf said to a nearly packed lecture hall in the Koussevitzky Arts Center.

The truth, according to DeWolf Perry, is Massachusetts was the first colony/ state to practice and legalize slavery. The state’s practice lasted almost two centuries, before it was abolished in the 1840s. His research discovered slave ownership was just as brutal in the so-called "Free States" as it was in the South.

"Whipping slaves was not only common in the North, but required by law to keep them in line," he noted.

Furthermore, DeWolf Perry found much of the middle class, along with the wealthy in the North either owned at least one slave and/or invested in slave trade voyages to Africa’s west coast. The more the slaves sold for in the U.S. and West Indies, the higher the return on the investment.

He also cited how Massachusetts’ textile manufacturing boom in the 19th century came at the expense of slave labor picking the cotton that was shipped to northern factories.

Following the lecture, DeWolf Perry said northerners shouldn’t get bogged down by or feel guilty about their past, but rather learn from it.

"There is still a racial divide in this county," he told an Eagle reporter. "[The past] can help understand the prejudice we have."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
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