U.S. church confronts painful link to black slavery

Published June 20, 2006

Dain Perry, a DeWolf descendant, visits Assin Manso, Ghana, where captured Africans were brought for a last bath. The DeWolf family, which had deep Episcopal Church connections, was the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Their history is examined in Traces of the Trade, a documentary film by Katrina Browne, another descendant.

Columbus, Ohio As the Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA) breaks new ground and forges a future with such actions as the election of its first female national bishop, it is also examining its 400-year-old past and confronting an exquisitely painful issue – the church’s relationship to black slavery.

Several resolutions at the 75th General Convention, meeting here June 13-21, concern the topic. One proposes that the church collect information on the history of its relationship with and the economic benefits it derived from slavery. It also requests that the church find ways to express repentance and “achieve spiritual healing and reconciliation.”

Another proposal concerns a truth and reconciliation “storytelling” process about racism and white social privilege. Another would collect information on “the economic benefits the Episcopal Church derived from the institution of slavery and (study) how the church can … share those benefits with African American Episcopalians.”

The last resolution concerns the sticky question – now also being discussed in the broader U.S. society – of whether the church and the country should pay reparations to black Americans for the injustice of slavery.

The issue was brought up dramatically in a film screened at the convention called Traces of the Trade: a story from the Deep North. Filmmaker Katrina Browne researched her family’s long history in Bristol, R.I., and discovered that the DeWolfs were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history – and they had deep Episcopal Church connections. James DeWolf Perry was a presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and Mark Anthony deWolfe Howe was an Episcopal bishop in Rhode Island.

The film accompanies nine DeWolf descendants as they accept Ms. Browne’s invitation in 2001 to travel together from Rhode Island to Ghana and to Cuba, where DeWolfs owned slave-holding plantations. At one point, the narration notes, “there were Christian missionaries on board the slave ships. One of the first things was that you were baptized and you lost your name. You took a Christian name and you were a slave in the name of God.”

Earlier this year, the church’s anti-racism committee suggested that the documentary, “is an example of the type of truth-telling and facing the painful sins of the past that needs to be undertaken in every part of the church where people of a different color, language, religion, or national origin have been excluded.” The film’s two screenings at the convention attracted more than 500 people.

As church officials noted here, the first Episcopal parish will be celebrating in 2007 the 400th year of the first Anglican church service in Jamestown, Va. At the time, Virginia was part of the slave-holding South and research is beginning to document how much Episcopal wealth – including the slave labour that built early churches – can be traced to a system of human bondage.

But today’s Episcopal Church has black faces, male and female, at every level of its organization – lay, clergy, bishops, staff and committees.

Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina, said in an interview that he sees, “as a black man in a southern diocese, a serious desire to move forward (on racial issues).” The willingness to examine a difficult issue – slavery – “is a sign of a church taking serious the call to be an instrument of healing, reconciliation and justice in the world. It is a hopeful sign … I have found that every once in a while, Pentecost happens all over again and the Holy Spirit raises us to our higher and nobler selves.”

Not all Episcopalians agree, though, that financial compensation is the way to go. Addressing a legislative committee at convention, Rev. Carolyn Jones of Indiana said that reparations “encourage helplessness, victimization and whining” and “grow from the world of entitlement” that “creates second-class citizens” and “second-class members of the Episcopal Church.” Bishop Robert Ihloff of Maryland spoke of recognizing white privilege and said the four resolutions should be taken seriously so “we might really build something of the kingdom of God in this place.” However, he said, it will not happen until “white people, like myself, are willing to make some sacrifices” and “lay aside the privileges that are in our heritage as the sad result of slavery.”

But Rev. Sandye Wilson, in an interview, said “it’s not about the money. Responsibility comes in recognizing the church’s complicity with slavery.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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