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New York's Enslaving Past: A Hudson Valley Reckoning

New York's Enslaving Past: A Hudson Valley Reckoning Online

When author Debra Bruno was growing up in the Hudson Valley village of Athens, she had no idea that New York had once been a slave society. And when she discovered that her Dutch ancestors had held on to slavery for as long as they could, bequeathing slaves to their dependents and selling off others, she knew she had to learn more. Her serendipitous encounter with Eleanor Mire, who descends from people her family enslaved, further enriched the story, which she described in a 2020 Washington Post Magazine article. Bruno's writing drew a wave of attention and allowed her to tell those stories for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now.”

Now she has expanded that research into a book: A Hudson Valley Reckoning: Discovering the Forgotten History of Slaveholding in My Dutch American Family. The book, to be released by Cornell University Press Three Hills imprint on October 15, is a combination of memoir, history, and many unanswered and unanswerable questions. New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Eig called it “an enthralling story and important work of history, impressively researched and beautifully told.” Historian Myra Young Armstead of Bard said it will “read like a cannon blast for those unfamiliar with this difficult past.”

The book raises some interesting questions: What is the responsibility of white descendants of enslavers? How would she define reparations? What do we need to know about American history? How did she never learn anything about slavery in New York when growing up?

Bruno's talk will cover both a brief history of slavery in New York and the author’s journey to discovery, touching on a few of the many stories she found, such as the 18th century story of the second pastor of Athens’ Zion Lutheran Church, who was accused of fathering a child with the daughter of a freed slave, an accusation that ruined his reputation. Another was the fascinating history of Mary Vanderzee, Eleanor Mire’s New Baltimore ancestor, who was born in 1802 and lived until the age of 104. Her son Cato was at Appomattox to watch Gen. Robert E. Lee surrender to Grant. There is also the story of the author’s surprise when she first found the 1796 will of her five-times great grandfather Isaac Collier, who bequeathed his slaves to his children.


Debra Bruno is a longtime Washington journalist and teacher, with a career that has covered law, politics, the arts, music, dance, theater, books, culture, health, and international issues. She has worked at Moment Magazine, Legal Times, and Roll Call. From 2011-2014, she was a freelance writer in Beijing, covering subjects as diverse as expat divorce and post-nuptial agreements for the Wall Street Journal, about rowing in a dragon boat for the Washington Post, and about Chinese hutongs for Atlantic’s CityLab. After returning from China, she continued as a freelance writer, covering topics as diverse as an interview with ACLU legal head David Cole for American Lawyer, or writing about drum circles and 3D ultrasound images for the Washington Post.

 A Hudson Valley Reckoning: Discovering the Forgotten History of Slaveholding in my Dutch American Family will be published in October 2024 by Cornell University Press Three Hills.

Visit Debra Bruno's website to see interviews with her on MSNBC, NPR, and with the New-York Historical Society.

Wednesday, October 16, 2024
12:00pm - 1:00pm
Time Zone:
Eastern Time - US & Canada (change)
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Registration is required. There are 476 seats available.

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