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Original Essays

Family Threads: From John Alden and Drew Barrymore to Me and to You

by Thomas Norman Dewolf
We are all related to each other. I mean this literally. We're one, big (sometimes-not-so) happy family. The thousands of people I've encountered in the scores of places I've visited around the country since the publication of Inheriting the Trade have convinced me that the threads in our family web may be countless and complexly interwoven, but we are cousins nonetheless. You may recall the news during the last presidential campaign that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney are eighth cousins and Obama and George W. Bush are 11th cousins. This isn't unusual. It's the rule.

Upon one of my shelves rests a tattered, brittle copy of an old book, its front cover barely hanging on to the spine by two fragile strands of binding fiber. Isaac T. Hopper: A True Life, written by L. Maria Child, was published in 1853. This dog-eared biography is a treasured possession as well as a significant reminder to me of the convolution of human relationships.

Isaac T. Hopper was a Quaker and staunch abolitionist. He was one of the most respected people within the anti-slavery movement during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was but a teen when he first helped an enslaved man escape to freedom in Pennsylvania. He was a leader in the Underground Railroad, treasurer for the American Anti-Slavery Society, and Lucretia Mott spoke at his funeral in 1852.

Isaac's son John followed in his father's footsteps. Sort of. According to George Howe, in the book Mount Hope, John was an active abolitionist, but he was also a member of a minstrel troupe — the Knickerbocker Ethiopians — who traveled the country performing in blackface for the amusement of "gentlemen and their ladies." William Henry DeWolf — son of James DeWolf, head of the nation's most successful slave-trading family (and my first cousin, six generations removed) — hired the minstrels to perform at the 1844 grand opening of the ballroom he added to Linden Place (a family mansion in Bristol, Rhode Island, that was originally built in 1810 with the proceeds from one year's profit from the slave trade after it had been federally outlawed). John Hopper sat beside William's daughter Rosalie at dinner. They fell in love and soon eloped.

John and Rosalie's son, DeWolf "Wolfie" Hopper, became an actor. He's best known for taking an obscure poem and making it quite famous. He reportedly performed Casey at the Bat more than 10,000 times. Wolfie's fourth wife became the notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Their son William DeWolf Hopper played Paul Drake on the Perry Mason television series (1957-1966). William was my fifth cousin, twice removed. Complicated, I know, but hang in there with me.

William Henry's cousin George built Linden Place. "General George" was the most notorious slave-trader in the family; continuing to transport African people for more than a decade after Thomas Jefferson signed the bill which outlawed this evil commerce in human flesh in the United States in 1808. George's great grandson married the actress Ethel Barrymore, great aunt to Drew.

Confession. I've written several "Dear Cousin" letters to Drew Barrymore. To date, the only responses I've received have been autographed photos of her. I'm sure she receives a lot of mail and, admittedly, the familial connection appears a bit distant. Her second cousin, to whom she's related through the Barrymores and not the DeWolfs, is my seventh cousin. The common ancestor this seventh cousin and I share was born in 1695. But still...

I have Facebook friends that I'm related to from throughout the United States as well in Canada, Belgium, and France. And these folks are just those to whom I'm pretty sure I'm related through our shared surname. I've met third, fourth, sixth, seventh, ninth, and tenth cousins over the past few years. Most of them do not carry the DeWolf name. I'm convinced that virtually everyone I pass on the street, in the airport, or that I speak in front of at a university is my cousin.

Coming to the Table (CTTT) is a project that brings together descendants of slavery, black and white, to explore their connection to the history of slavery and to consider how best to address its legacy — and heal from its lingering harm — both on a personal and societal level. Dave (yep, he's a distant cousin) participates in CTTT and is an avid genealogist. While researching his ancestors in Rhode Island, Dave discovered slave traders as well as owners of enslaved people in his family. Digging more deeply, Dave was able to locate, and make contact with, a woman of color whose ancestors were once owned by Dave's. Imagine that first phone call.

Pat and Dave have become close friends as together they confront their shared history and contend with its sometimes-uncomfortable implications today. The three of us recently participated in a weekend workshop in Jackson, Mississippi. While there, my ears pricked up when I overheard Pat say that she's descended from John and Priscilla Alden who arrived at Plymouth aboard the Mayflower in 1620. Pat and I are 13th cousins (or something like that).

The tie that binds these disparate stories together — and that brought John and Priscilla Alden to each other, John Hopper to Rosalie DeWolf, our Facebook friends to each of us, and Pat to Dave and me — is the same thread weaving throughout the complex human web that links us all into one, shared human family. The genealogy research is far too difficult, and too many pieces of the puzzle are missing, to prove my contention scientifically. Some of you may be thinking of all the reasons why I'm wrong. Others may say, "So what?" I hope and trust that at least some of you are pondering the implications of being related — however distantly — to virtually everyone you encounter.

We live in troubled, dangerous times. People fight over politics, religion, children, money, and more. Too often the result is enmity, separation, terrorism, and war. What implications would it have if we treated each other like the family we are? What if we truly recognized our shared humanity? What would happen if we spent more time focusing on what we have in common rather than issues upon which we disagree? Took care of, instead of advantage of, each other? What do you think, cousin?

÷ ÷ ÷

Thomas Norman DeWolf speaks at colleges and universities throughout the United States on the trauma of historic slavery and its continuing impact on all of us today. He writes regularly for his blog. Visit the author at his website. spacer

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