Families in Slavery

Families in Slavery - HISTORY

The prevalence of single mothers and orphaned children on plantations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially, necessitated communal parenting, focused on maternal figures. On smaller farms and plantations, a mother might bring her children with her out into the fields when she worked. On larger plantations, however, children were left behind, often cared for by "aunts" or "grannies," older women no longer useful as field hands.

Group of slaves on a Beaufort, South Carolina plantation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs.
Extended families not only ensured that their members were physically provided for, but they also offered emotional support. Watching a mother, a husband, or a child being beaten or otherwise brutalized, could be as painful as losing that person. Indeed, some parents wished that death would liberate their children from the horrors of slavery. The extended system of kinship central to African society, thus, found new purposes within the institution of American slavery.

Slaves took risks to maintain relationships, sneaking away to visit relatives on neighboring plantations. They expressed deep grief and horror over the cruelties they saw inflicted upon their loved ones. They often faced abuse in order to protect their kin. And they accepted responsibility for the welfare of children who were not their own. After Emancipation, newly freed slaves traveled the roads of the south and placed ads in papers in efforts to reunite with family members. Despite the inconsistencies of slave life and the ever-changing circumstances of slavery in America, enslaved men and women demonstrated an unwavering understanding of the value of family. Whatever advantages slave unions held for an owner, for the enslaved man, woman, or child, the family was an incomparable source of solace and strength and a primary means of survival.

Benin was a hub of the slave trade. But many people want to forget their families’ role.

OUIDAH, Benin — Less than a mile from what was once West Africa’s biggest slave port, the departure point for more than a million people in chains, stands a statue of Francisco Félix de Souza, a man regarded as the father of this city.

There’s a museum devoted to his family and a plaza in his name. Every few decades, his descendants proudly bestow his nickname — “Chacha” — on a de Souza who is appointed the clan’s new patriarch.

But there’s one part of de Souza’s legacy that is seldom addressed. After arriving here in the late 1700s from Brazil, then a Portuguese colony, he became one of the biggest slave merchants in the history of the transatlantic slave trade.

In Benin, where the government plans to build two museums devoted to the slave trade in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, slavery is an embattled subject. It is raised in political debates, downplayed by the descendants of slave traders and deplored by the descendants of slaves.

At a time when Americans are again debating how slavery and the Civil War are memorialized, Benin and other West African nations are struggling to resolve their own legacies of complicity in the trade. Benin’s conflict over slavery is particularly intense.

For over 200 years, powerful kings in what is now the country of Benin captured and sold slaves to Portuguese, French and British merchants. The slaves were usually men, women and children from rival tribes — gagged and jammed into boats bound for Brazil, Haiti and the United States.

The trade largely stopped by the end of the 19th century, but Benin never fully confronted what had happened. The kingdoms that captured and sold slaves still exist today as tribal networks, and so do the groups that were raided. The descendants of slave merchants, like the de Souza family, remain among the nation’s most influential people, with a large degree of control over how Benin’s history is portrayed.

Visitors in January take pictures at the Door of No Return in Ouidah, which marks the site where slaves were shipped to the Americas. (Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)

A detail of the Door of No Return, showing captured slaves on their way to the Americas. (Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)

A close-up of slaves on the Door of No Return. (Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)

In building the new museums, the country will have to decide how it will tell the story of its role in the slave trade. Is it finally ready, for example, to paint de Souza as the slave merchant that he was?

“The tensions are still there,” said Ana Lucia Araujo, a professor of history at Howard University who has spent years researching Benin’s role in the slave trade. “In the past, the country had a hard time telling the story of the victims of the slave trade. Instead, many initiatives commemorated those who enslaved them.”

Unlike some African countries, Benin has publicly acknowledged — in broad terms — its role in the slave trade. In 1992, the country held an international conference sponsored by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, that looked at where and how slaves were sold. In 1999, President Mathieu Kérékou visited a Baltimore church and fell to his knees during an apology to African Americans for Africa’s role in the slave trade.

But what Benin failed to address was its painful internal divisions. Kérékou’s apology to Americans meant little to citizens who still saw monuments to de Souza across this city. Even Ouidah’s tour guides had grown frustrated.

“These people don’t know the history. De Souza was the worst person, and he’s still treated like a hero,” said Remi Segonlou, who runs a small business showing visitors around the city.

The memory of slavery emerges here in large and small ways. In the 2016 presidential election, one candidate, Lionel Zinsou, angrily pointed out in a televised debate that his opponent, Patrice Talon, who is now president of Benin, was the descendant of slave merchants. In villages where people were abducted for the slave trade, families still ask reflexively when they hear a knock on the door whether the visitor is “a human being” or a slave raider.

“Our anger at the families who sold our ancestors will never go away until the end of the world,” said Placide Ogoutade, a businessman in the town of Ketou, where thousands of people were seized and sold in the 18th and 19th centuries.

When his children were young, Ogoutade told them they were barred from marrying anyone who was a descendant of the country’s slave merchants.

Some of Benin’s foremost scholars are battling the country’s unwillingness to interrogate its messy past.

Martine de Souza, 52, left, a descendant of Francisco Félix de Souza, sits with her mother, Dagba Eulalie, 70, at their home in Ouidah in January. Eulalie is descended from a slave who was brought to Ouidah from what is now Nigeria in the late 1800s, and married off to a resident of the city. (Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)

“This is still a country divided between the families of the enslaved and the slave traders,” said Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yai, a professor of history and linguistics who taught for years at the University of Florida and worked for UNESCO in Paris before returning to his native Benin. “But the elite don’t want to talk about what happened here.”

The Smithsonian Institution has signed a memorandum of understanding to provide help with the new museums, although details have yet to be worked out, officials said. Benin’s government has also appointed several scholars, including Yai, to ensure the accuracy and credibility of the exhibits in one of the museums, in the city of Allada, about 20 miles from Ouidah. But even Yai questions the authorities’ willingness to address the facts.

“Is this about reconciliation, or is it just about attracting tourists? That’s something we need to be vigilant about,” he said.

There are several reasons Benin’s history of slavery was papered over or misrepresented for so long. First, when Benin was a colony of France from 1904 to 1958, the French didn’t want to draw attention to their own role in the African slave trade. Then, after Benin became independent, its leaders pushed for a sense of national, and even Pan-African, identity.

Since 1991, when Benin transitioned from a dictatorship to a democracy, the history of slavery has mostly been presented as a means of luring Western tourists.

“People here are trying to find work. They are trying to eat. They are surprised when they see tourists who come looking for their identity,” said José Pliya, the president’s adviser for tourism.

Pliya is directing the establishment of the two museums, one focusing on Ouidah’s history, due to open next year and funded largely by the World Bank, and the other in Allada, which will more broadly investigate the country’s role in the slave trade and is scheduled to open in 2020. The two sites are expected to cost $24 million in total.

The government is also planning to reconstruct the forts where slave merchants lived in Ouidah and the cells in which they kept their slaves.

The Place de Chacha in Ouidah, named after slave merchant Francisco Félix de Souza, marks the site where slaves were said to have been auctioned off before they were shipped to the Americas. (Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)

The government acknowledges that if it wants to attract tourists, it will need to address concerns about whether Benin is whitewashing the actions of the slave trade’s architects. Advisers to the president said he plans to rename the Place de Chacha square in Ouidah, said to have been an open-air auction site for slaves. Authorities have not yet decided on a new name.

“This is a very delicate subject,” Pliya said.

Many members of the de Souza family are aghast at the idea.

“He was a man who helped modernize our nation,” said Judicael de Souza, 43, noting his ancestor’s role in expanding agricultural trade with Europe.

One member of the family, Martine de Souza, a tour guide, has urged the family for years to re-examine its history. “It’s time we accept the reality,” she said in an interview. But most others are cautious.

Late last year, the family appointed its new patriarch, or Chacha. He is a construction engineer named Moise de Souza who lives in a concrete apartment building with a poster-size picture of himself on the wall. He has light brown skin, a point of pride for a family that often boasts about its ties to colonialists.

In an interview, he acknowledged his ancestors’ role in the slave trade.

“It is something that makes me feel bad. We know it’s painful, and all I can do is apologize,” he said.

Still, he worried that members of his family would be livid if he shared that sentiment publicly in Benin. He vehemently opposes any mention of de Souza as a slave merchant in the new Ouidah ­museum.

“It’s the reputation of our family,” he said. “We don’t want to be known for this dirty thing.”

In mid-January, he and dozens of other de Souza descendants made their yearly pilgrimage to the city of Abomey, the former capital of the kingdom of Dahomey, a major regional power in pre-colonial days. A modern-day king of Dahomey, Dédjalagni ­Agoli-Agbo, still presides, even though the title is now a largely ceremonial one.

The meeting had an extraordinary subtext. The kingdom of Dahomey had sold hundreds of thousands of slaves to merchants like Francisco de Souza. The ceremony was about celebrating a relationship between two families that was originally forged over slaves.

On that humid morning, Moise de Souza stepped out of an SUV wearing a gold-trimmed shawl and cap. He walked to the front of a dimly lighted meeting room, sweating in the heat. A group of American anthropology students, almost all of them white, had been allowed inside to watch.

The king of Abomey, Dédjalagni Agoli-Agbo, sits between women from his family and the new “Chacha,” leader of the de Souza family, Moise de Souza, in Abomey, Benin in January. (Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)

Finally, the king arrived, surrounded by several wives wearing matching yellow-and-orange dresses. He shook de Souza’s hand. Glasses of champagne were poured.

“This ceremony reminds us of the connection between Dahomey and de Souza,” the king said, as a Beninese TV crew filmed.

“I wish good health, a long life and peace to the king,” de Souza responded.

Slavery was never mentioned.

“It’s a memory both families would prefer to forget,” said the professor escorting the students, Timothy Landry of Trinity College in Connecticut.

When the event ended, the de Souza family poured out of the building.

A wax print made with an image of Francisco Félix de Souza, a prominent slave trader, seen at a ceremony celebrating a relationship between two families that was originally forged over slaves in Abomey, Benin. (Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)

They wore outfits of bright, traditional African fabrics. On some of the skirts and shawls, a white man’s face had been printed, his eyebrows raised, his mustache curled.

In case he couldn’t be identified, the man’s name was printed in big letters.

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North Carolina families united by shared slave history connect

Fair Bluff, N.C. &mdash A man and woman recently discovered a link in their family history. His ancestors were slave owners, and her ancestors were those enslaved.

Chandler Worley, 66, was on a tractor readying a corn field at his family's produce farm in Columbus County when his cellphone rang.

On the line was a Fayetteville woman named Christian Worley Proffitt.

"I did the craziest thing," said Proffitt, 22, who spent two years searching Google and to find out where she came from. "I contacted the descendants of my family's slave owners."

Using the name of her third great-grandfather, Proffitt had searched "slavery, Columbus County, 1815." She said she has always loved history but discovered the hard truth when she traced her lineage to an enslaved family at a North Carolina plantation owned by one Elijah Worley.

"When I found out that my family did descend from slaves, it was a lot of anger, naturally -- a lot of resentment," Proffitt said.

Proffitt found Chandler Worley's number and called him to ask if he would mind talking about his ancestors. He said, "No, I'd be happy to talk to you."

"At first it was very nerve-wracking," Proffitt said. "I didn't know if he was going to be angry with me."

"She called me out of the blue," Worley said. "If I can help her, I'm going to help her."

Worley did more than just talk with Proffitt -- on Sunday, he invited her family to walk the land with him.

"I was afraid he was going to be one of those people who just completely brushed it under the rug, didn't want to talk about it," Proffitt said. "But he was the exact opposite -- very helpful, very excited to help. It was as if he was waiting for me to come the whole time -- he had everything ready."

Worley also welcomed WRAL News reporter Bryan Mims to his 200-year-old house, where he still has the original bill of sale for an enslaved person. Worley also has a list of some individuals who were enslaved on the farm, including ancestors of Proffitt.

He offered to make copies of the documents to share with Proffitt's family.

"I was just filled with so much tranquility, so much serenity," Proffitt said. "That's the best word I can use to describe it. I just felt so much peace. I felt as though I was literally able to walk where my ancestors walked and be able to see what they saw."

This isn't Worley's first reunion. Twenty years ago, descendants of the people enslaved on his ancestors' farm invited him to a family reunion. He was apprehensive at first but said it was a wonderful experience.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day "when the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." Now, on a farm bearing much fruit, the table is set.

Grades 4-5 complexity band. Note: due to the subject matter, transcribed dialect, and one instance of cursing, the selections are more appropriate for middle and high school students.
For more information on text complexity see these resources from

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.2 (Determine a theme or central idea of a text…)
  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4 (Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text…)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 4.1 (3-C) (Enslaved and free African Americans…created communities and strategies to protect their dignity and their family structures…)

Families in Slavery - HISTORY

Enslaved blacks attempted to provide for their family members financially, as well as spiritually. At a time when slavery was still a concept rather than a legal institution, blacks from New Amsterdam to the Chesapeake Bay used the courts to ensure the well-being of family members. Numerous slaves made bequests of property to wives or children in wills. The fluidity of the status of black people also allowed greater opportunities to achieve freedom for kin. Some parents contracted their children to masters under terms that guaranteed the children would be released from service after a specified number of years. Others attempted to buy loved ones out of slavery. Occasionally black men married white women, ensuring that their children would be born free.

As the plantation revolution swept across the South in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and the terms of racial slavery were concretized in law, slaves found it increasingly difficult to form families. Not only did the law forbid interracial wedlock and deny blacks legal rights to marry each other, but the agricultural demands of Southern slave societies also continued to generate a disproportionate population of black men in the colonies.

"A Negro Wedding" (p.104) Illustration from Thomas Nelson Page, Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
By the early 1700s, however, planters in both the Chesapeake region and in the Southern low country were becoming aware that they could profit economically by promoting the families their slaves were struggling to create. Marriage, they reasoned, would make slaves content and therefore docile. What is more, stable unions would lead to reliable reproduction cycles. This idea of a self-renewing slave labor force was exploited on a grand scale for the first time on the plantations of late eighteenth century America, increasing in intensity after 1807 when Congress outlawed international slave trade.

The nature of the slave family varied depending on the form of agrarian activity taking place in a given region. Because tobacco planting required fewer slaves on a single farm, Chesapeake slave families were often spread across several plantations. Men and women in this region often "married abroad," meaning that spouses had different owners and lived apart. In such cases, a husband, either with permission or surreptitiously, would usually visit his wife and children once or twice a week.

Family born on a Beaufort, South Carolina, plantation. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs
The divisiveness of agricultural production in this area helped to foster a vast kinship network that linked several plantations. In contrast, the largest of "Cotton Kingdom" plantations required dozens of hands, making it more common to find whole families working and living together.

As industry attempted to keep up with agricultural output in the South, the number of African slaves in the North increased, rapidly replacing the first generation of Atlantic Creoles who had successfully organized into autonomous families. Unlike their Southern contemporaries, Northern slave owners had little interest in family formation among slaves. The nature of urban life and small-farm production made large workforces untenable and unnecessary. While the plantation master approved of, oversaw, and often arranged marriages among his slaves, the Northern master discouraged marital union and dissolved existing bonds by separating husbands and wives.

‘The gift of this history’

John King was in his first year as education secretary when he got a call in 2016 from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The historically black college said it had discovered that his paternal grandmother, Estelle King, graduated from the school’s predecessor in 1894, before becoming a nurse. Would he want to give a speech at the school? Sure, he said.

The call prompted a dive into his family’s past. Last year, he enlisted the help of Christine McKay, a retired archivist from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture who had once discovered Obama’s father’s letters, some of which he’d written from Kenya imploring universities in the United States for financial aid.

McKay wanted to know everything about the Kings. She started with John’s great-great-grandmother, Lydia King, who was born about 1822. She combed the records of the Freedman’s Bank — established after the Civil War for freed people — and found two of her accounts, suggesting she’d probably been enslaved. The records also listed the names of four of Lydia’s children: John, Sophia, Anne and Charles.

McKay consulted the Maryland State Archives, which keeps voluminous records chronicling the state’s history of slavery, which spanned from shortly after its Colonial founding in the 17th century to November 1864, when the state abolished it. (The Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, freed enslaved people only in seceded states, exempting border states such as Maryland, where there were more than 87,000 enslaved blacks in 1860.) In her search, McKay found a slave census.

A Maryland clan traces its roots to slavery.

Many members of John B. King Jr.&rsquos family lived remarkable lives, including John B. King Sr., New York City&rsquos first black deputy schools chief Lt. Col. Haldane King, a Tuskegee Airman and William &ldquoDolly&rdquo King, one of the first black pro basketball players.

Kamala Harris’s Ancestors Owned Slaves, Her Father Says

Kamala Harris speaks on stage at 2019 ESSENCE Festival / Getty Images for ESSENCE Brent Scher • July 9, 2019 4:30 pm

Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) is the descendant of an Irishman who owned a slave plantation in Jamaica, according to her father's lengthy ancestral summary of his side of the family.

Donald Harris, a Stanford University economics professor, revealed in 2018 that his grandmother was a descendant of Hamilton Brown, the namesake of Brown's Town in northern Jamaica.

"My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town)," he wrote in a post for Jamaica Global.

Hamilton Brown built the town's local Anglican Church, which is where Prof. Harris says his grandfather is buried. It is also where he himself was baptized and confirmed.

A research archive of Jamaican records indicate that at one point in 1817, Hamilton Brown owned scores of slaves. The majority were brought in from Africa, though he also owned many Creole slaves.

The Harris campaign has not commented on her father's claims. It did not respond to a request for comment.

NBC News reported on Monday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's two great-great-grandfathers owned at least 14 slaves between the two of them in Alabama. The report tied McConnell's ancestry to his position on government reparations for slavery, which he opposes.

McConnell responded to the report on Tuesday by comparing his stance to former president Barack Obama, who opposed reparations while acknowledging that some of his ancestors owned slaves.

"You know, I find myself once again in the same position as President Obama," McConnell said. "We both oppose reparations, and we both are the descendants of slaveholders."

Harris has yet to take a definitive position on reparations for slavery. When the California senator was asked in February whether she supports "some form of reparations for black people," she said she did, but was unclear on how exactly it would be paid out.

"We have to be honest that people in this country do not start from the same place or have access to the same opportunities," Harris said. "I'm serious about taking an approach that would change policies and structures and make real investments in black communities."

A few weeks later she distanced her position from explicit payments to the descendants of slaves, saying she views policies aimed at lifting up the poor, such as her tax credit to low-income families, as reparations.

"If you look at the reality of who will benefit from certain policies, when you take into account that they are not starting on equal footing, it will directly benefit black children, black families, black homeowners because the disparities are so significant," Harris said.

She later told NPR that reparations "means different things to different people."

"I think that the word, the term reparations, it means different things to different people," Harris said. "But what I mean by it is that we need to study the effects of generations of discrimination and institutional racism and determine what can be done, in terms of intervention, to correct course."

Harris has not commented on her distant slaveowner ancestry in Jamaica. Her father earlier this year said his daughter's ancestors would be "turning in their grave" if they heard her stereotype the island's people as "pot-smoking joy seekers."

Merchant Families

Wealthy merchant families dominated the economy, society, and politics of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New York City. These families also played a central role in the founding, development, and governance of King’s and Columbia College as the historian Craig S. Wilder has pointed out, King’s College was a “merchant’s college.” Many merchant families associated with Columbia derived their wealth from trading in slaves and goods produced by slaves. In turn, the wealth of these families financed the College. Some members of these prominent merchant families later supported the abolition of the slave trade and gradual emancipation of slaves in New York and elsewhere, but their prominent position in society was made possible by their participation in economic activities based on slavery.

Beekman Family

Nine members of the Beekman Family attended King’s and Columbia College between 1766 and 1889. The Beekmans numbered among the most prominent members of New York’s elite merchant class. They derived their wealth from a variety of commercial endeavors, including the transatlantic slave trade, and many members of the Beekman family owned slaves.

On the same page of the New-York Post-Boy or Weekly Gazette that contained an account of the swearing-in ceremony for the first King’s College governors in March of 1755, an advertisement appeared for the sale of three slave children at a shop opposite Beekman’s Slip. This newspaper page reveals the intertwined history of the founding of King’s College and slavery in New York City.

Henry Beekman, a slave owner, was among the founding King’s College governors who took the oath in 1755. Gerard Beekman, who graduated in 1766, owned nine slaves in 1790. A Gerard G. Beekman is recorded as engaging in the slave trade throughout the mid-eighteenth century. Gerard G. Beekman also repossessed two slave children in 1782 to prevent their fleeing the country with the British during the war.

Livingston Family

The Livingston Family acquired their wealth in the seventeenth century, when they received a grant of 160,000 acres of land near the village of Hudson, New York. The family patriarch, Robert Livingston, engaged in several modes of commerce, including many transatlantic trading voyages involving sugar, tobacco, and slaves. After his death in 1728, his six children continued to expand the family’s involvement in the slave trade. His son, Philip Livingston, was one of New York’s most active slave traders, investing in at least fifteen slaving voyages. As of the first U.S. census, taken in 1790, the Livingston family owned a total of 170 slaves.

A total of thirty-eight Livingstons attended King’s or Columbia between the founding of the college and the Civil War. Other Livingstons served as governors and trustees. John Livingston, a King’s governor from 1754 to 1770, imported slaves and slave-produced goods from the West Indies into New York and other colonies, and he placed numerous advertisements in newspapers for their sale. John Henry Livingston and Walter Livingston, Columbia trustees, both owned Jamaican plantations with numerous slaves in addition to slaves in New York.

Robert R. Livingston, who graduated from King’s College in 1765, held more enlightened views towards free black people than many of his peers. He helped to veto a bill in 1785 that called for gradual abolition in New York State, objecting on the grounds that it denied free black people the right to vote or hold office, and therefore violated the constitutional principle of equal liberty. In spite of these ideals, however, Robert R. Livingston was a slave owner until his death in 1813.

Watts Family

John Watts was one of the initial donors to King’s College, among the sixty-six “subscribers” who contributed a total of over £5000. Watts was a wealthy New York merchant who imported wine and rum from the West Indies and also made significant investments in slave trading voyages. Watts also served as a New York agent for prominent West Indian merchants, including Gedney Clarke, a major slave trader in Barbados. Watts’s letters to Clarke demonstrate his calculated knowledge of how to maximize the profits from the sale of slaves in the New York market.

John Watts had business connections with other prominent merchant families, including the Crugers and was brother-in-law to Oliver DeLancey. These families were all deeply involved in slave owning and trading. Watts was a Loyalist and fled to England during the Revolution.

Two of John Watts’s sons and several later descendants attended King’s and Columbia. His son, John Jr., who graduated from King’s in 1766, served as the last Recorder for the city of New York under British rule, prior to the outbreak of the Revolution. Later, John Watts, Jr. was elected to the New York State Assembly and the United States Congress. He also served as a trustee of Columbia College.

Cruger Family

John and Henry Cruger were founding governors of King’s College, and John Cruger was among its initial donors. The Crugers were prominent in New York society as leading merchants and also because both John Cruger and his father served as mayors of New York City.

Henry and John Cruger partnered with John Watts in slave trading ventures. They owned a major mercantile firm that traded goods including flour, sugar, wine, rum, timber, and slaves in ports spanning the Atlantic. Several of John and Henry Cruger’s sons attended King’s College. Henry Cruger, Jr. attended King’s in 1758, but he did not graduate. Instead he moved to Bristol, England, which was a major slave-trading port, and managed his family’s business there. He became very successful, investing heavily in slave voyages traveling from Africa to the Caribbean and New York.

The Cruger family is perhaps best known for its patronage of the young Alexander Hamilton. Nicholas Cruger, a son of Henry Cruger, employed Hamilton as a clerk in his St. Croix shipping house. Hamilton’s connection to the family enabled him to sail to New York and matriculate at King’s.

William Alexander

William Alexander was a wealthy merchant and landowner who served as a major donor fundraiser for the founding of King’s College. He later called himself the “Lord Stirling” and acted as one of the College governors until 1776. His father, James Alexander, bequeathed one hundred dollars in his 1745 will to establish a college in New York.

Prior to his involvement with the founding and development of King’s, William Alexander invested heavily in the slave trade. He invested in at least two voyages in 1748, and he proceeded to buy two of his own slave ships, which brought 100 slaves to New York City.

William Alexander married the daughter of Philip Livingston, another active slave trader involved with the founding of King’s College. Alexander went on to serve as a Brigadier General under George Washington in the American Revolution.

Verplanck Family

The Verplancks were a wealthy New York mercantile family who owned numerous slaves and had connections to the Atlantic slave trade. Many Verplancks attended or were involved with King’s and Columbia. Philip Verplanck was a founding King’s College governor and a wealthy estate-holder on the Hudson River, where he employed enslaved and indentured laborers in his household. When he died in 1771, an inventory of his property listed eight slaves alongside his other belongings. His son Philip owned twelve slaves there in 1790.

Philip’s relatives Gulian and Samuel Verplanck both graduated from King’s College, and Samuel served as governor from 1770 to 1776. They both traveled to Europe to further their mercantile education and went on to hold several public positions in New York and Dutchess County. Slaveholding was a regular feature of their lives. According to federal census records, Gulian owned five slaves in 1790.

Samuel’s son Daniel Verplanck graduated from Columbia College in 1788. Both he and his father made their home at their family estate, Mt. Gulian, in Dutchess County. Daniel purchased the freedom of James F. Brown, an escaped slave, who became the master gardener at Mt. Gulian. Daniel’s son Gulian Crommelin Verplanck also graduated from Columbia and later served as a trustee.

DeLancey Family

The DeLanceys were a powerful mercantile and political family in colonial New York, and members of the family were deeply involved in the founding of King’s College.

Oliver DeLancey was a business partner of his brother-in-law and fellow slave trader John Watts, and he was also among the founding governors of King’s College. Delancey, a Loyalist, owned twenty-three slaves at his farm in upper Manhattan in 1775. After rebels burned his house during the Revolution, he allowed all but three slaves to leave. When British forces evacuated the city at the end of the war in 1783, approximately 3000 slaves who had escaped to British lines accompanied them, including at least one slave owned by DeLancey.

James Delancey, Jr., a slaveholding lawyer, was also a founding King’s College governor and donor. He was among the college governors who had used the King’s endowment as a personal line of credit to subsidize their mercantile and business interests. These governors were exposed by Augustus Van Horne, who took office as treasurer of King’s College in 1779.

Two other Delanceys, John and Peter, attended Kings College from 1757 to 1761, but they did not graduate. Like their relatives, they were also slave owners. John posted a runaway ad 1775, and his slaves also left with the British at the end of the Revolution.

Philipse Family

From humble beginnings as a carpenter for the Dutch West India Company, Frederick Philipse I rose to mercantile prominence after marrying a wealthy widow. The family estate, Philipse manor, occupied about one quarter of the land in present-day Westchester County. At its peak, thirty slaves and twenty-six white indentured servants worked at the manor. Frederick Philipse I built the family’s fortune on slave trading. In instructions for a 1698 voyage to Madagascar, Philipse told the ship captain to purchase “two hundred good slaves or as many as the ship can carry” and bring them back to New York City for sale.

Frederick Philipse II, Frederick I’s grandson, rose to prominence as a Justice of the New York Supreme Court. Philipse tried dozens of enslaved New Yorkers in the aftermath of a supposed slave plot in 1741, including Cuffee, a slave owned by his uncle who was accused of setting fire to a family storehouse.

Frederick Philipse III, Frederick II’s son, was a founding King’s College governor donor, as well as the father of another Frederick Philipse, who was a King’s graduate in 1773. Frederick III was the third and last lord of Philipsburg Manor. He sided with the British during the Revolution, and his manor and property, including some slaves, were confiscated and sold in the war’s aftermath. Philipse may have taken some slaves with him when he fled the country with the British, while elderly and infirm were left behind and became public charges. One slave, Betty, was still living at Philipse manor in 1816. New York State reimbursed the overseers of the poor of Yonkers for maintaining Betty at the rate of $1.75 per week.

Havemeyer Family

The Havemeyer Family made its fortune in the sugar refining business. William Havemeyer arrived in New York City from Germany at the turn of the nineteenth century, followed by his brother Frederick Christian Havemeyer. They came from a family of bakers, and they started a business processing sugar. At this time, in the early nineteenth century, the vast majority of sugar came from islands in the Caribbean, produced by slave labor. After emancipation occurred in the United States in 1865, imports of foreign sugar increased. Much of the Havemeyers’ sugar came from Cuba, where slavery was not abolished until 1886.

William Havemeyer’s son, William F. Havemeyer, was an 1823 graduate of Columbia College. He and his cousin, Frederick Christian Havemeyer, Jr., another Columbia graduate, expanded their fathers’ sugar refining business, establishing a factory on the Brooklyn waterfront. William F. Havemeyer chose to leave the family business, however, and he was elected mayor of New York City twice in the 1840s as a Democrat. As a member of the “Barnburner” wing of the party, Havemeyer opposed the expansion of slavery. He supported Martin Van Buren for president in 1848 as the candidate of the newly formed Free Soil Party.

Columbia’s Havemeyer Hall, the chemistry building, was funded by Frederick Christian Havemeyer, Jr.’s sons, Henry Osborne and Theodore Havemeyer, in honor of their father. Henry Osborne and Theodore renamed the sugar refinery Domino Sugar and attempted to achieve a monopoly of the sugar market in the early twentieth century.


Columbia College, Catalogue of the Governors, Trustees, and Officers, and of the Alumni and Other Graduates, Columbia College (originally King’s College) in the City of New York, from 1754 to 1882, (New York: Printed for the College, 1882).

Leonhard Felix Fuld, Kings College Alumni, (1913).

Edward H. Hall, Philipse Manor Hall at Yonkers, N. Y. (New York, 1912).

David C. Humphrey, From King’s College to Columbia, 1746-1800, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976)

Letter Book of John Watts: Merchant and Councillor of New York, (New York, 1928).

Robert A. McCaughey, Stand Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy : Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).

By WNN Editors Team on December 5, 2013 Comments Off on Her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history

Democracy Now! – WNN Features

Metal shackles that were used to hold the legs of an enslaved man to the floor of a slave ship. Image:

(WNN/DN) New York, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: As United States citizens accept the pervasive role slavery had on the emerging society inside the the U.S. during the building of the nation, slaves that were bought and sold in the country’s northern region emerge as a surprisingly large part of the slave trade that existed throughout the country from 1760s to the 1820s.

This and other issues are discussed as Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! interviews Katrina Browne, a descendent of the prominent and wealthy northern DeWolf family who owned the largest number of slaves ever recorded in the history of the United States. Their record of slave ownership, known today as human trafficking, runs from the 18th century land owners of Rhode Island to the slave-trading plantations in Cuba.

From the slave-worked plantations of Cuba the DeWolf family influence in the American slave-trade in Rhode Island even infiltrated by association to the mortar-and-brick building efforts for higher education in the United States as Brown University also benefited financially during it’s earliest days through monies received directly by the Rhode Island slave-trade. Today the truth is out that as African slaves were not allowed to attend or even enter universities in the early days, their forced enslavement paid for the existence, building and operation of ivy-league institutions of higher learning like Brown University, as well as others in New England like Harvard and Yale.

“In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of these what was to be done with us they gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them,” outlined Nigerian slave Olaudah Equiano in his book “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. ” that was published in 1789. “I then was a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate but I still feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty,” continued Equiano.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our conversation on slavery, we’re joined by a woman who uncovered that her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Katrina Browne is with us. She documented her roots in the film “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.”

KATRINA BROWNE: One day my grandmother traced back. I was in seminary when I got a booklet in the mail that she wrote for all her grandchildren. She shared our family history—all the happy days. She also explained that the first DeWolf, Mark Anthony, came to Bristol as a sailor in 1744. And then he wrote, “I haven’t stomach enough to describe the ensuing slave trade!”

What hit me hard was the realization that I already knew this—knew, but somehow buried it along the way. What no one in my family realized was that the DeWolfs were with the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. They brought over 10,000 Africans to the Americas in chains. Half a million of their descendants could be alive today.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, narrated, produced and directed by Katrina Browne. After the film aired on PBS’s POV in 2008, she went on to found the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery to inspire dialogue and active response to this history and its many legacies. Katrina Browne now joins us from Washington, D.C. And still with us, MIT Professor Craig Steven Wilder, author of the new book, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

Katrina, take us from there. You discover, though you say you knew, some kind of primal secret, what your family—how significant the DeWolfs were in slave trading.

KATRINA BROWNE: It’s—in our family case, it’s a bit of a stand-in for the region as a whole, because I heard things as a child, but I didn’t allow them to sink in, because it’s so—it’s basically cognitive dissonance, I would say, for white Northerners to think that we have any relationship to slavery, because we’re so much—I think all of us— raised and educated in our schools to believe the South were the bad guys and the North were the—Northerners were the heroes. So, it was hard to comprehend and shocking to discover as I dug more into it.

And because of this larger untold story of the role of the North, I decided to produce a documentary. And what we did was basically I invited relatives to join me on a journey to retrace the triangle trade of our ancestors. And nine brave cousins came with me, and we went to Rhode Island and then Ghana and Cuba, where the DeWolfs owned plantations, in that pattern that Professor Wilder was talking about of, even after slavery was abolished in the North, even after the slave trade itself was abolished in the North, folks like the DeWolfs continued to be invested in slavery through actual plantations in the Caribbean—in their case, Cuba—as well as through that carrying trade of provisioning the islands and the American South.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip of Traces of the Trade. You and your relatives, as you said, go to Ghana. You’ve just visited the dark, dank rooms where Africans were kept until they were sold and loaded onto ships. This is your relative, Tom DeWolf, describing his reaction.

TOM DEWOLF: The thing that I guess strikes me more than anything right now is that we’ve talked, when we were in Bristol and we were in Providence and were listening to historians and scholars, and we’ve heard people talk about, you know, “You’ve got to place it in the context of the times,” and, “This is the way things were done,” and “This is how, you know, life was.” And I just—I sit in that dungeon, and I say, “[bleep]. It was an evil thing, and they knew it was an evil thing, and they did it anyway.” And I couldn’t have said that before—before tonight.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from Traces of the Trade, when you and your relatives visit Bristol, Rhode Island, where the DeWolf family lived and operated their slave trade. In this scene, you’re visiting with local historians.

KATRINA BROWNE: The more historians we talk to, the more sobering it got.

KEVIN JORDAN: The slave trade, you’ve got to remember, is not just a few people taking a boat and sending it out. Everyone in town lived off slavery—the boat makers, the ironworkers who made the shackles, the coopers who made the barrels to hold the rum, the distillers who took the molasses and sugar and made it into rum. So, literally the whole town was dependent on the slave trade.

JOANNE POPE MELISH: All of the North was involved. All these cities and towns along the coast—Salem, Boston, Providence, New London, New Haven, New York, and the rural areas around them—either traded slaves or manufactured goods or raised farm products for the slave trade.

A 1799 ledger of Katrina Browne’s ancestor James DeWolf details the sale of 13 slaves in Havana, Cuba. This ledger has been preserved by the Bristol Preservation & Historical Society in Rhode Island. Image: Providenceejournal/Frieda Squires/Bristol Preservation & Historical Society

AMY GOODMAN: That was historian Joanne Pope Melish in a clip from Traces of the Trade. Katrina Browne, some members of your family went on this journey with you. You were also shunned by others. Where has this taken you? I mean, this is not, as you point out, just any family involved with slavery, although that’s unbelievable to say in itself, it’s the—your family is the largest slave-trading family in the United States, and it’s in the North.

KATRINA BROWNE: Yeah, so, you know, it wouldn’t shock you or listeners to hear that there was obviously a great deal of anxiety and discomfort and nervousness about the idea of publicizing our family history. And I think one of the things I’ve come to appreciate is the depth of the emotions that get in the way for white Americans more broadly, not just our family. We’re an extreme case, but I think it’s a—it’s a sort of an example of a larger pattern, which is that defensiveness, fear, guilt, shame, those emotions get in our way both from really confronting the history and coming to appreciate the vast extent of sort of the tentacles of the institution of slavery and how fundamental it was to the birth and success of our nation and to paving the way for the waves of immigrants that came subsequently.

So, you know, discomfort looking at that history, but then also, obviously, discomfort around grappling with the implications for today and really coming to grips with that. And I hear so many black Americans say, you know, “We’re not trying to guilt-trip you. Quit taking it so personally. We just want you white folks to show up for the work, together with us, of repairing those harms that, you know, continue to plague this country.” So, I’ve noticed how I’ve gone from, like, you know, extreme kind of major guilt reaction upon learning this about my family and my region to a more grounded and, I would say, mature and calmer ability to take stock of the inheritance that I think—you know, we’re an extreme case, again, but it provides a view into what I think all white Americans need to look at in terms of those legacies of white privilege and whatnot.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Katrina, what is your family’s, the DeWolf family’s, relation to Brown? Of course, your last name is Browne. But Brown University, of course, they’re based in Rhode Island. I know the DeWolf—one of the DeWolfs wrote the alma mater of Brown.

KATRINA BROWNE: The—so, I’m Browne with an E, so it is a different Brown. But, yeah, James DeWolf, who was one of the more prominent slave traders in the DeWolf family, apprenticed with John Brown, who was a slave trader, and they both ended up in Congress and worked together to help preserve the slave trade, to help protect the Rhode Island slave trade and all kind of—you know, in cahoots even with President Thomas Jefferson around some of that. It’s a longer story. But in any case, the economy of Rhode Island was steeped in the slave trade. It was actually—it usually shocks people to hear that Rhode Island was the leading slave-trading state in the country, you know, not South Carolina or Virginia. So—and that leads to the founding of the university and some of the early funds for Brown University.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting that Ruth Simmons, who was the former president of Brown, great-granddaughter of slaves, first African-American president of any Ivy League university, also—and I want to bring Craig Wilder back into this conversation—commissioned the first Ivy League study of her university—


AMY GOODMAN: —Brown University’s connection to slavery. Professor Wilder?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think this is actually a critical moment in American history. And throughout the process of sort of talking about the book, one of the things I’ve constantly returned to is her decision in 2003 to commission a study of Brown’s relationship to the slave trade. And this happened for a number of reasons. You know, there was a blow-up at Yale at its 300th anniversary about Yale’s relationship to the slave trade, which became quite controversial. That also helped spark rumors about other institutions. And the public secret of Brown’s relationship became even more pronounced and lively when she became president, when the first non-white president of an Ivy League institution took office. It was tremendous—it took tremendous courage to make that decision. The report in 2006 is an extraordinary example of moral leadership, of how we actually get this conversation happening.

And as Ms. Browne was saying about the documentary, one of the things I think is fascinating about both President Simmons’ decision, the subsequent report and the public reaction to it is that much of the hostility and fear that people had anticipated, the problems that they had anticipated when the report and the commission were first announced, actually didn’t really materialize. And if you look at the recent history of the way in which we have engaged with the question of slavery in America’s past—the Brown report, documentaries like Traces of the Trade, the New York Historical Society’s exhibit on slavery in New York, the anniversary of the end of the slave trade in England—one of the things I found fascinating is that it provides extraordinary evidence that the public is ready for a difficult conversation, that in many ways we tend to underestimate the capacity of people to really deal with, and their desire to deal with, these problems.

When her cousin, I believe it is, in the documentary was saying that—you know, reacting to the slave-trading port and this material culture of the slave trade that’s surrounding him, one of the things I like to remember—remind people is that the things that white Americans find difficult and horrific, that generate feelings of guilt and fear, are also actually troubling and horrific and difficult for black Americans. And in that very fact, there’s the possibility of a real, genuine and useful conversation about slavery and American society. I think we’re moving toward that. We’re moving there slowly, but we are getting there. And I think the public is actually ahead of the rest of us at times. I think the media tends to be more conservative and afraid of these discussions than the public are. And if you look at the tremendous, you know, crowds that showed up for those exhibits, you actually see evidence of that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Craig Steven Wilder, his new book is Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. He’s a professor of American history at MIT. I also want to thank Katrina Browne, producer and director of the documentary, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.”

Katrina Browne documented her own roots in the film, “Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North” which revealed how her family, based in Rhode Island, was once the largest slave trading family in U.S. history. After the film aired on PBS in 2008, Browne went on to found the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery. We speak to Browne and Craig Steven Wilder, author of the new book, “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.”

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