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How Enslavers' And Slaves' Descendants Became Friends

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Debra Bruno and Eleanor Mire both grew up sheltered from a troubling chapter in their family histories. Debra, who is white, never knew she descended from enslavers. Eleanor, who is Black, was never told that her ancestors in New York's Hudson River Valley were enslaved. Both women are interested in genealogy, and that's how they found out about their connection between their families. Debra's ancestors owned Eleanor's ancestors.

Debra wrote about this in the Washington Post Magazine, and both women join us now. Thank you for being here.

DEBRA BRUNO: Thank you.

ELEANOR MIRE: Oh, nice to be here.

SHAPIRO: This family history does not take place in the Deep South. It takes place in New York's Hudson River Valley. Did you both know that slavery existed there when you began your research?

MIRE: I did.

BRUNO: This - Eleanor did. I did not.

MIRE: Yeah. I like history, and I've done some history. So yeah - so I was aware.

SHAPIRO: So Eleanor, growing up, what were you told about your family's history with slavery?

MIRE: Nothing, absolutely nothing. The - it's my grandmother's mother's side of the family who were in New Jersey, New York. And my grandmother would always say there were no slaves in our family; there never were. And meanwhile, she was married to a man whose parents had come up from Virginia who had been born enslaved, but we just didn't even discuss that either.

SHAPIRO: Debra, was slavery ever discussed in your family?

BRUNO: Not in the least. So I have one side of my family that is the Italian immigrants, and then the other side of the family were the farmers and the Dutch. But I just never learned or even examined in my own history that there could be anything like slavery in the Hudson Valley.

SHAPIRO: So tell me about the moment that you discovered in an ancestor's will that he had bequeathed human beings to his children.

BRUNO: Yeah, that was a shocking moment to say the least. I had had a hint from a friend who was a historian years ago who said, you might look into this. And I said, no, no, no, not my family. What I didn't realize is that I needed to trace my grandmother's side of the family. Her maiden name was Collier, and I just kept going back and back and back generations until I came across a man named Isaac Collier. And there was his 1796 will where he bequeathed enslaved people by name to his descendants. And then I started looking at other names in my family tree, and it was like turning over rocks. One after the other, I would find more enslavers and more enslavers.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about Mary Vanderzee, who is the link that connected your research to each other.

BRUNO: Eleanor, do you want to start?

MIRE: I can speak a little about her. She was born in 1801 or '02. We really haven't nailed that one down yet. And she lived to be a 106, 107 years old. So she went...

SHAPIRO: Amazing.

MIRE: You know, she saw the span of it. But she was - when she was born, it was right when they were gradual manumission. So even though she wasn't born enslaved, her parents were. And they were basically treated as if they were. She had children. We're not sure who the father was and what the circumstances was, but we assume it was rape. But then she was married twice and then ended up owning her own home. It's kind of overwhelming to think of how she managed her life and her psyche to get that far.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BRUNO: And I agree. Mary Vanderzee, we have a photograph of her that is just so moving, taken, I think, on her 100th birthday celebration. And she just looks so dignified and regal and beautiful. And you know, Eleanor and I were able to find the last home she had lived in - or one of the last homes she had lived in. And we paid a visit to that. We paid our respects at the cemetery, and we actually had lunch on the Hudson River where her sons were boatmen. So it felt as if we were able to kind of bring back her spirit in a sense.

You know, in some ways - we've been joking about this a little bit, but we almost feel as if she and the rest of the family has been calling to us. You know, let our stories be heard. We want to be heard again (laughter), so we've been sort of listening to them.

MIRE: Yeah, especially her because, yeah, her life had to be - you know, like, it did span over a hundred years. And you know, to think of all that she lived through and all that she saw, it really is kind of mind-boggling.

SHAPIRO: I understand the desire to excavate your own family history. Tell me about the desire to connect with somebody on the other side of the equation. Why did you want to find each other?

MIRE: Well, I just - it's always difficult, for some reason, connecting with people whose families enslaved. It's almost like they don't want to admit to it. And finding someone as open as Debra who said - this is in my family. How did this happen, and what was the situation? - it was a breath of fresh air.

BRUNO: I agree. I love that - a breath of fresh air. I mean, I was very nervous contacting Eleanor, thinking she might think I'm just a horrible person. She might not want to have anything to do with me. And when we first talked, it was almost as if we couldn't stop talking. We just kept trading stories. And it was a relief and also, for me, a kind of a reckoning, a kind of a way of helping me to make sense of what happened in the past and maybe understand a little bit more about how we got to where we are today.

MIRE: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: You know, there's been a lot of debate about what the appropriate national policy is to deal with the legacy of slavery, whether that's affirmative action or reparations or something else. What about on the personal level - I mean, do you think there is an individual debt of some sort that needs to be paid?

BRUNO: I think there's a spiritual debt. I think that my job now is to tell this story more fully in order for especially Northerners to realize that we are not absolved of this; we are not separate from this. This is as much our sense of complicity in slavery as white Northerners as the South. And we have to know that, and we have to own that, and we have to think about what that means in terms of current racism and current divides in our country.

MIRE: I think the only debt that owed is educating and understanding. That is the debt, I think, that is really owed - people to not dismiss this as just as there was slavery, and it's over, and it's done. I think the debt is the education to know that this did happen, these people were involved, and this is where we are now. And it's not like - somebody sent a note to her, when they had the comment section, she should buy me the house. No, I don't want the house. I've got my own house.

(LAUGHTER)

MIRE: But you know, I think understanding is the debt that is owed - understanding.

BRUNO: Eleanor, you said you didn't want to have another house to clean.

(LAUGHTER)

MIRE: That's right. I've got my own house to clean. Who wants another one?

SHAPIRO: Eleanor Mire and Debra Bruno, thank you for sharing your family histories with us.

BRUNO: It was my pleasure.

MIRE: It was - you're welcome. You're welcome. We're glad to do it.

SHAPIRO: Debra Bruno's piece about connecting with the descendant of people her ancestors enslaved is in the Washington Post Magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.