Out In The Open

Her ancestors were slaves. His were slave traders. They took a road trip to 'confront that history'

Sharon Morgan is the descendant of slaves. Tom DeWolf is the descendant of the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history. Together, they took a road trip to significant sites in each of their family's pasts to better understand how the legacy of slavery has affected them.

The unlikely pair drove more than 9,000 kilometres in 30 days by following a map based on family genealogy

Tom DeWolf and Sharon Morgan met in 2008 through Coming to the Table, a non-profit organization founded by the descendants of both slaveholders and enslaved people. (Submitted by Sharon Morgan)

This story was originally published on May 10, 2019.

Sharon Morgan sobbed while clutching the steering wheel of her parked car as Tom DeWolf sat quietly in the passenger seat.

They'd just driven across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama when Morgan was overcome with sadness and anger toward the man beside her.

"What are you thinking right now?" DeWolf asked Morgan.

"I'd really like to kill you," she said.

Morgan, a black woman from Chicago's South Side, is a descendant of slaves. DeWolf, a white man from central Oregon, is a descendant of the largest slave trading dynasty in U.S. history.

The unlikely pair were on a road trip together.

A healing process

Morgan and DeWolf stop for reflection at the International Reconciliation Memorial in Richmond, Va. (Submitted by Sharon Morgan)

Morgan and DeWolf met in 2008 through an organization called Coming to the Table ー a non-profit aimed at working to "heal from the racial wounds of the past, from slavery, and the many forms of racism it spawned."

At first, Morgan didn't like DeWolf at all.

"Tom DeWolf is like the portrait of white men. He's got blond hair, blue eyes, pasty skin, and is very intense," she said.

But as part of a workshop designed to spark the healing process, they agreed to embark on a 30-day, 9,650-kilometre road trip together. They mapped out a route based on their families' genealogies.

While on the road, they visited historically significant landmarks, including the location where a young man was lynched in 1954, an antebellum home in Mississippi and a sharecroppers farm in Louisiana.

'They knew the horror they were committing'

Morgan embarked on a journey to discover more about her ancestral roots in slavery. In this photo of relatives are Tommie Joe Leslie (left), Mama Rhody Leslie (middle), and Frank Leslie (right), in 1940s Chicago. All of them migrated from Alabama, where Leslie was enslaved. (Submitted by Sharon Morgan)

DeWolf's journey in understanding the pain that his family had inflicted onto generations of African Americans started long before meeting Morgan. In 2001, he took a trip to West Africa with other DeWolf descendants to retrace the places that his family did business.

He stood in castle dungeons, where enslaved people were held before being shipped off to the United States. Sitting in the exact same spot that slaves had sat in was a profound experience for DeWolf.

He says before that moment, he felt quite removed and detached from his ancestors' role in the slave trade.

"It became crystal clear to me that they knew what they were doing, and they were doing it for their financial benefit, at the expense of African people. They knew the horror they were committing, and they did it anyway," DeWolf recognized.

'Bloody Sunday'

In 2007, Morgan founded Our Black Ancestry Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research. (Submitted by Sharon Morgan)

On the road trip, history truly hit home when the pair crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the site of "Bloody Sunday" ー a key moment during the civil rights movement when Alabama state troopers attacked hundreds of peaceful protesters with billy clubs in March of 1965.

"My ancestors were enslaved right down the road from there," she said. "It's such a rush of emotion because you have connected this history."

In that moment, Morgan says that DeWolf represented every white person that enslaved, lynched, sharecropped, and beat her family.

"There is this overflow of emotion and you don't know what to do with it. But if you go through this process, if you confront that history, and you let it be painful, then you can move past it," she said of the road trip.

'We need to do this work together'

DeWolf and Morgan enjoy lunch in Selma, Ala., before crossing the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of 'Bloody Sunday.' (Submitted by Sharon Morgan)

Over the years, DeWolf has learned that sitting in feelings of guilt for his family's past is not useful. Instead, he believes in focusing on working toward a better future.

"When we're going to understand trauma and its impact, and look to repair centuries-old wounds, and present day wounds, we need to do it with a clear mind and an open heart. We need to do this work together," he said.

Morgan hopes to pass along what she's experienced to her two grandchildren, and use her family's story of trauma as a source of inspiration.

"I want them to know that our ancestors were enslaved, and they suffered incredible, inhumane things in their lifetimes. But they were resilient enough to endure, so that we could be here today," she said. "And now, our responsibility is to stand on their shoulders, and make the world a better place."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode, "Legacy Projects".