A school built by abolitionists — and a slave trader

Posted January 20th, 2014 by
Category: History, Outreach Tags: , , ,

Perkins School for the BlindThis year, to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I was invited to speak at Perkins School for the Blind and to participate in the school’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day activities. Perkins School was founded 185 years ago as the first school for the blind in the United States, and has spent that time as a leader in innovating technology and pedagogy for educating the blind, the deafblind, and those with additional disabilities.

The students of Perkins celebrated King’s life through music and with a dramatic reading of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As the keynote speaker, I focused on telling the story of my family, the DeWolf slave-trading family, as we uncovered our family’s hidden past and worked to turn that history into a documentary film, Traces of the Trade. I talked about how our family’s history illustrates the much broader involvement of New England, the North, and the entire United States in slavery and the slave trade. I spoke of the ways in which so many of us in this country are tied to the history of slavery, and benefit from that history today, and about the importance of acknowledging this history, rather than finding a way to turn away from the truth or to insist that this history is really about other people, and not about ourselves.

The students were also provided a dramatic illustration of how to acknowledge this history by the school’s president, Steven M. Rothstein, through an op-ed he wrote for this occasion, which ran last week in the Boston Globe under the headline, “A school built by abolitionists — and a slaver.” In this essay, Mr. Rothstein detailed how the history of Perkins includes strong ties to progressive abolitionists—but that the school is also named for a wealthy benefactor, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, who made part of his fortune in the slave trade.

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