"An enthralling story and an important work of history, impressively researched and beautifully told. In reckoning with her own family's history, Debra Bruno helps us better understand ourselves."

-Jonathan Eig, author of King


Debra is a journalist and author who fearlessly explores the complex tapestry of race, family, and identity. Through meticulous research and unflinching honesty, Debra uncovers the untold stories that have shaped our nation.

Debra Bruno is a longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and author with who has written extensively on the law, politics, the arts, music, dance, theater, books, culture, health, sports, and international issues for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Atlantic, National Geographic, and many other publications.

She has also worked at Moment Magazine, Legal Times, and Roll Call. As an editor at Legal Times from 2004 to 2008, she wrote a column, “Balancing Act,” on women in the law, including an interview with Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That column won a “best feature” award from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association.

From 2011-2014, she was a freelance writer in Beijing, covering subjects as diverse as expat divorce and a baijiu-themed bar for the Wall Street Journal, rowing in a dragon boat for the Washington Post, and Chinese hutongs for Atlantic’s CityLab. A book she co-authored with her husband, former Wall Street Journal senior editor Bob Davis, Beijing from A to Z: An Expat Couple’s Adventures in China, was published in 2015 as an e-book by the Wall Street Journal.

When she got interested in learning more about her Dutch ancestry, she found the story of a lifetime. A historian friend told her that if she had Dutch ancestors in New York’s Hudson Valley, they were likely enslavers. She was right. She hadn’t known about New York’s 200 years of enslavement and was stunned to realize that her very rural area of the state held so many hidden stories. When she connected with Eleanor Mire, whose ancestors had been enslaved by her ancestors, their shared history became that much more nuanced and powerful. Those revelations first appeared as a 2020 article in the Washington Post Magazine, one that drew a wave of attention. Debra and Eleanor were featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now.”

Her book, an expansion of that article, is A Hudson Valley Reckoning: Discovering the Forgotten History of Slaveholding in My Dutch American Family (via Cornell’s Three Hills imprint in October 2024). In connection with that work, she serves on the Ulster County (NY) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is creating a website and a walking tour focusing on enslavement in the mid-Hudson Valley region.

She formerly taught freshman composition at the George Washington University, where she also served as editor of its literary magazine, the GW Forum. Today she is also a member (second soprano) of the Georgetown Chorale, a lifelong Francophile (if only to have the fluency to chat up Parisian cab drivers), and Nana to two perfect grandchildren, Lane and Casey. Learn more at www.debrabruno.com.

Speech topics

Reckoning with Ancestral Sins: Uncovering My Family’s Slaveholding Past

Debra Bruno will talk about her personal journey of uncovering her Dutch American family’s history of slaveholding in the Hudson Valley, and how that history has been hidden and diminished. She will explore how that reckoning led her to a friendship with a woman who is descended from the very people her family enslaved, and what that means for us in today’s America.

When We Learn Family Truth

How does a deep dive into family ancestry change the way we think of history? Ancestry research has become an enormous business in the U.S., and many Americans have spent both time and financial resources to learn more about their own family's story. Often, that digging turns up some very uncomfortable truths: genetic relatives no one knew about, ancestors who do some horrendous things, like belong to the Klan (see Edward Ball's Life of a Klansman) or the Mafia (see Russell Shorto's Smalltime), or ancestors who, like Bruno's, were enslavers. What should one do with that information? Debra Bruno’s understanding of ancestry research could lead to a discussion of how to do it, and why it matters.

One Writer’s Story

What a peripatetic life in journalism taught Bruno about courage, friendships, and the value of storytelling that grows out of immersive travel and unblinking research. Starting a freelance career with the magpie approach of seeking shiny things, the writer moved on to write about topics that ranged from drum circles, to hiking the Great Wall of China, to Sri Lanka’s endangered elephants, to a cozy chat with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Through it all, she kept an attitude of curiosity and learned lessons about hard facts, rare finds, and how to talk your way into a Chanel show in Beijing with no Mandarin, no way to identify herself as a correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily, and a very basic understanding of the world of fashion.

The Enslavers

What is the role of the descendants of enslavers? (This could be a great topic for a larger panel discussion.) Does having ancestors create an additional sense of responsibility in doing something? Should anyone feel guilty? For those descendants who may not be able to write a book or serve on a truth and reconciliation panel, are there other ways they can think about understanding whether they have a responsibility? Bruno will offer concrete suggestions for learning about the past, questions to ask, and what might be some of the obstacles in the way. (Hint: absolving guilt is not the point.)

Repair and Symbolism

What can we learn from the push towards reparations facing the backlash against the 2020 racial reckoning movement? What are forms of reparations? Most Americans in this political climate shy away from hard discussions about financial compensation for the descendants of the enslaved, but New York State has recently initiated a Reparations Commission that will look at what remedies could be offered to descendants. Other ideas have included college scholarships, lessons in schools and further education, museums, and even, in Connecticut, a "stumbling stone" version of the German Stolperstein, which marks the homes of the victims of the Holocaust. She will make concrete, grounded, achievable suggestions.

Unveiling Hidden Histories: The Legacy of Slaveholding and the Power of Friendship

This is a joint talk with Eleanor C. Mire

Debra and Eleanor will talk about their discoveries about their families’ history in the Hudson Valley and what they learned of the lives of enslavers and enslaved people. They will describe how their unexpected friendship grew over time, leading to a lesson that confronting the past can sometimes pave the way for meaningful connections and mutual healing across generations.


A Hudson Valley Reckoning: Discovering the Forgotten History of Slaveholding in My Dutch American Family

A Hudson Valley Reckoning tells the long-ignored story of slavery's history in upstate New York through Debra Bruno's absorbing chronicle that uncovers her Dutch ancestors' slave-holding past and leads to a deep connection with the descendants of the enslaved people her family owned.

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