When Katrina Browne discovered that her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in American history she set out on a personal odyssey to uncover her past.
The result is “Traces of the Trade,’’ an award-winning documentary that tells the story of the patriarch James DeWolf and his descendants, who trafficked human beings from 1769 to 1820, sailing their ships from the seaside town of Bristol to West Africa with rum to trade for men, women and children.
Browne will bring her film – as well as her views on current and past racism – to the University of Rhode Island to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Week, Jan. 31 through Feb. 6. The film will be shown Feb. 3 at 5 p.m. Browne will give a keynote speech Feb. 4 at 11:30 a.m. in Memorial Union.
Browne’s appearance is the highlight of a week packed with events that focus on King’s call for nonviolence to achieve change. (All events, including the film, are free and open to the public.) Since 1986, URI has observed the legacy of the civil rights leader, who was assassinated April 4, 1968 at the age of 39 while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tenn.
Browne was in her 20s when she discovered her ancestors’ dark past. After trading rum, the slaves were taken to plantations the DeWolfs owned in Cuba. Sugar and molasses were then brought from Cuba to the DeWolf family’s rum distilleries in Bristol. Over the years, 10,000 Africans were enslaved. The family made a fortune.
In the film, 10 descendants of the DeWolf family retrace the steps of the Triangle Trade, visiting slave forts in Ghana and an old family plantation in Cuba. The URI screening comes at a time when the nation is struggling with the killings in St. Louis and other communities of unarmed African-American men by police officers.
“In the wake of incidents in Sanford, Ferguson, New York and Cleveland, Katrina Browne is an acute observer of the institution of slavery in shaping attitudes that influence interpersonal relations to the present day,’’ says Melvin Wade, director of the Multicultural Center. “With her ancestral connections, she can effectively deliver to the campus community a vision for the future of Rhode Island and the nation.”
Here are some other activities during the week:
* “Leadership and You: How to Make the Most of Your Inner Dr. King’’ Jan. 31 at 10 a.m. in the Multicultural Center. Students will define King’s leadership qualities and learn how to apply those practices to their daily lives and careers.
* Middle school students from throughout the state and URI students will participate in a day of community service. Activities will start Jan. 31 at 10 a.m. in the Multicultural Center.
* URI professors will talk about “The Great Kings and Queens of Africa’’ painting collection Feb. 2 from 2 to 3 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. Forty three million people worldwide have seen the 30 paintings of former African leaders.
* A showing of the documentary, “Martin Luther King and the March on Washington,’’ Feb. 2 at 4 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. Produced by Robert Redford and narrated by Denzel Washington, the film describes the build up to a peak moment in the civil rights struggle.
* “The Spirituality of Falun Gong’’ Feb. 3 at 6 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. The talk will explore Chinese spirituality.
* Unity luncheon Feb. 4 at 11:30 a.m. in Memorial Union. The URI Chaplains Association will present the 11th annual Peacemaker Award honoring a student, student group or faculty member with a commitment to peace and nonviolence. Browne will give a keynote talk at the luncheon.
* “Bias, Baggage and Beyond’’ seminar with Browne Feb. 4 at 2 p.m. in the Multicultural Center.
* Screening of “KING,’’ a documentary about King’s life Feb. 4 at 5 p.m.
* “Deep Listening: The Path to the Beloved Community’’ Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. Participants will talk about racism, especially in light of recent incidents in Ferguson and on Staten Island, and experience how listening can lead to reconciliation and empathy.
* An interfaith celebration Feb. 4 at 8 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. Students and others from diverse religious backgrounds will share readings, stories, songs, dance and prayer.
* A talk about “Nonviolence Principles in Islamic Tradition’’ Feb. 5 at 5 p.m. in the Multicultural Center.
* “Desegregation and the Black Radical Agenda,’’ at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Multicultural Center. The talk will explore how people of African descent living in the United States – and segregated socially, politically and economically – worked to establish their freedom.
* “Exploring the Confluence of Multiculturalism and Spirituality,’’ a talk Feb. 5 at 4 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. Center director Wade will talk about spirituality and multiculturalism.
* “Compassion Meditation Workshop’’ Feb. 6 at noon in the Multicultural Center. The workshop will explore why it’s worthwhile to be compassionate and kind in the world today.
* The 4th annual URI Avi Schaefer Jewish/Muslim Multicultural Shabbat Feb. 6 at 3 p.m. in the Norman M. Fain Hillel Center. Schaefer was a Brown University student who dedicated himself to promoting empathy and compassion in the Muslim community. Tragically, he was killed by a drunken driver in a hit-and-run accident in Providence in 2010.
For details about the week, visit www.uri.edu/mcc or call the Multicultural Center at 401-874-5829.