Bruce, Blanche Kelso

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Bruce, Blanche Kelso

March 1, 1841
March 17, 1898

Blanche K. Bruce was the second African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate, and the first to serve an entire six-year term. Born a slave on a plantation near Farmville, Prince Edward County, Va., he enjoyed an unusually privileged upbringing. His mother, Polly, was a slave owned by Pettus Perkinson, who may have been Bruce's father. Perkinson took an interest in Bruce and allowed him to be educated by his son's tutor. While growing up, Bruce moved with Perkinson and his family several times between Virginia, Missouri, and Mississippi. By all accounts, his childhood was pleasant, comfortable, and virtually free from punishment.

Nevertheless, Bruce refused to accept his status as a slave, and he ran away to Kansas at the beginning of the Civil War. In Lawrence, Kansas, he founded and taught in a school for black refugees. In 1864 he moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where he started the state's first school for blacks. He also apprenticed briefly to a printer. After studying at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1866, Bruce returned to Missouri to work as a porter on a steamboat.

Like many ambitious blacks and whites, Bruce recognized that the South during Reconstruction offered many opportunities for both political power and economic advancement. He settled in Mississippi in 1869 and immediately became active in the state's Republican Party. He served in a series of appointive public offices, including voter registrar for Tallahatchie County, sergeant-at-arms of the state senate, and tax assessor for Bolivar County. Gaining a reputation for honesty and efficiency, he was elected sheriff and tax collector of Bolivar County in 1871. Bruce also held positions as county superintendent of education and as a member of the district board of levee commissioners. In addition to his electoral base among black voters, he won the support of many white planters for his competence and promotion of political and economic stability. The dominant political figure in Bolivar County, Bruce also became an important landowner, with a 640-acre plantation and city lots in the county seat of Floreyville.

Mississippi's Republican-dominated legislature elected Bruce to the U.S. Senate in 1874, and he took office on March 5, 1875. He served on the Pensions, Manufactures, and Education and Labor Committees, as well as on the Select Committee on Mississippi River Improvements. As chairman of the investigating committee into the bankrupt Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, Bruce conducted an impressive inquiry into the corrupt and inept handling of nearly $57 million in deposits of former slaves. Cautious by nature and moderate politically, Bruce nevertheless often spoke and voted in defense of the rights of African Americans. At the same time, he believed that blacks were best advised to pursue advancement through education and self-help. He opposed the mass movement of African Americans from the South to Kansas, as well as efforts to promote emigration to Liberia. But he also reminded southern conservatives that the exodus was prompted by increasingly hostile conditions in the former slave states, and he sponsored legislation to aid exodusters suffering hardships in Kansas.

Bruce was cultured and intelligent, with refined manners and shrewd political judgement. In Washington, the light-skinned and sophisticated senator moved easily in elite circles, both black and white. On June 24, 1878, he married the elegant and beautiful Josephine Willson, daughter of a prominent Cleveland dentist. At first, the couple associated with the leading members of white Washington society as well as with leading blacks. However, after Bruce left the Senate in 1881, and as the color line in the capital began to harden, they had less contact with whites, becoming mainstays of Washington's African-American "aristocracy." The Bruce's only child, Roscoe Conkling Bruce (18791950), later became a prominent educator and manager of the famous Dunbar Apartments in Harlem.

By the end of Bruce's term in the Senate, Democrats dominated Mississippi, and no Republican could hope to win a state election. By retaining control of the state's Republican Party, however, Bruce remained an important figure in national party affairs. He served as register of the treasury under presidents James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, and William McKinley (18811885 and 18971898), and as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia under President Benjamin Harrison (18891893), two of the highest patronage positions in the federal government traditionally reserved for blacks. A member of the boards of the Washington public schools and Howard University, Bruce was also a sought-after lecturer. In addition, he amassed close to 3,000 acres of land in the Mississippi Delta, and he operated a successful agency in Washington for financial investment, claims, insurance, and real estate. In 1895, Bruce was worth an estimated $150,000, making him one of the wealthiest men in the capital. Bruce died in 1898 after years of deteriorating health.

See also Politics in the United States


Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1990.

Harris, William C. "Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist." In Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, edited by Howard N. Rabinowitz. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Mann, Kenneth Eugene. "Blanche Kelso Bruce: United States Senator Without a Constituency." Journal of Mississippi History 38 (May 1976): 183198.

Shapiro, Samuel L. "Blanche Kelso Bruce." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.

daniel soyer (1996)

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Bruce, Blanche Kelso

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