Bruce, Blanche Kelso 1849–1898
Blanche Kelso Bruce 1849–1898
Blanche Kelso Bruce, a Republican senator from Mississippi, was the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. Bruce may be remembered best for his participation in the investigation into the collapse of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company. Before entering politics, Bruce was a successful educator.
Bruce was born on March 1, 1841, on a plantation in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia. His mother, Polly, was a slave, and his father was probably Polly’s master, Pettus Perkinson. Polly named her 11th child Blanche Bruce, but Bruce added the middle name Kelso as an adult. Various accounts of Bruce’s childhood all acknowledged that he had more advantages than many other slave children. Bruce learned to read and demonstrated an eagerness for learning. Bruce’s mother encouraged her children to take advantage of learning opportunities.
During the early years of the Civil War, Bruce fled from Missouri to Laurence, Kansas. When the fugitive slave returned to Missouri in 1864, the state was forced to recognize him as a free man. Bruce then founded a school for black children in Hannibal, Missouri. Some accounts of his life suggest that Bruce attended Oberlin College, however, this has never been established by Oberlin. By 1868 Bruce had begun working as a cotton farmer in Mississippi.
Bruce was now ready to take advantage of all of the opportunities available to an ambitious, emancipated black man in the post-Civil War South. Literate, articulate, ambitious, and light-skinned, Bruce was well-advantaged. David S. Barry, a contemporary of Bruce’s, said, as quoted in Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite 1880-1920, that Bruce was of “high moral, mental, and physical standards … a handsome man, well- built, with a finely shaped head covered with curly black hair.” These characteristics, combined with his ability to recognize and seize opportunities, made Bruce an ideal politician.
In January of 1870 Bruce was elected sergeant-at-arms of the Mississippi Senate. The following year he became the sheriff and tax assessor of Bolivar County. In 1880 Bruce, a Republican, became the first black man to lead the Republican National Convention. According to Howard N. Rabinowitz, author of Black Leaders, white planters who dominated the politics of the area considered Bruce, who had offended no local whites, “safe—a dignified and educated mulatto who did not identify himself with threatening issues.” Bruce was also a landowner—he had turned 640 acres of swampy land into a plantation—which made him even more appealing to white voters
In 1873 Bruce declined an offer to run for lieutenant governor. He had his eye one a senatorial seat instead. Most Republicans wanted Bruce in the Senate, especially James Hill, Mississippi’s most influential black leader. According to John W. Cromwell in The Negro in American History, Hill had once told Bruce, “I can and will put you there [in a Senate seat]; no one can defeat you.”
Bruce announced his candidacy for a U.S. Senate seat in 1874. Bruce defeated two white carpetbaggers and
Born Blanche Bruce (added middle name Kelso as an adult) on March 1, 1841, in Farmville, VA; son of a slave mother; married Josephine Beall Wilson (a teacher), 1878; children: Roscoe Conkling Bruce; died from diabetic complications in March of 1898, in Washington, D.C. Education: May have studied at Oberlin College.
Career: Founded and taught at school for black children, Hannibal, MO, mid- 1860s; cotton farmer; MS state senate, sergeant-at-arms, beginning 1871; Bolivar County, sheriff and tax assessor, begin 1871; first black man to lead the Republican National Convention, Chicago, 1880; U.S. Senate, senator, 1875-81; became the first black Register of the Treasury, 1881; appointed Recorder of Deeds of the District of Columbia, 1889-94; appointed post of Register of the Treasury, 1895.
Memberships: Board of Trustees, Howard University, 1894-98.
Awards: Honorary degree, Howard University, 1893.
was elected, becoming the second black man from Mississippi to serve in that position. During the next six years, Bruce maintained a secure reputation, often presiding over the Senate. Bruce was considered a moderate in his political views. Like Booker T. Washington, Bruce wanted civil rights for blacks, though not necessarily social equality. Bruce argued for the desegregation of the U.S. Army.
Bruce chaired the investigation into the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust scandal. Since its inception, after the federal government’s 1865 authorization of a bank for blacks that would help former slaves become economically stable, mismanagement and corruption had plagued Freedmen’s Savings and Trust. By 1874, the bank had collapsed.
Following the end of his term in Senate, Bruce had become one of the most influential men of the black middle class and had formed strong alliances with white Republican leaders. Using his reputation and status as a gentleman farmer, politician, and educator, Bruce was able to secure positions after he left office. In 1881 he became the first black Register of the Treasury under President James Garfield. President Benjamin Harrison appointed Bruce as Recorder of Deeds of the District of Columbia in 1889, and he remained in this post until 1894. In 1895, under President William McKinley, Bruce held an appointed post of Register of the Treasury for three months until an illness forced him to leave the position. Bruce operated a successful business in Washington, D.C., handling investments, claims, insurance, and real estate. He also served on the Board of Trustees of Howard University from 1894 to 1898, receiving an honorary degree from the school in 1893. Regarded by some historians as the most successful black politician of the Reconstruction period, Bruce died from diabetic complications in March of 1898, in Washington, D.C. He was 57 years old.
Bruce, H. C. The New Man: Twenty-nine Years As a Slave, Twenty-nine Years a Free Man; Recollections of H. C. Bruce. 1895. Reprint, Miami: Mnemosyne Publishing Co., 1969.
Cromwell, John W. The Negro in American History. The American Negro Academy, 1914.
Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite 1880-1920. Indiana University Press, 1990.
Johnson, Allen, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.
Litwack, Leon, and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Norton, 1982.
Lynch, John R. The Facts of Reconstruction. Neale Pub. Co., 1913.
Notable Black American Men. Gale Research, 1998.
Notable Black American Women. Gale Research, 1992.
Stamp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877. Random House, 1975.
Biography Resource Center Gale, 2001, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
—Grace E. Collins and Jennifer M. York
Blanche Kelso Bruce
Blanche Kelso Bruce
Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841-1898), African American political leader in Mississippi, was the first member of his race to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate.
On March 1, 1841, Blanche Kelso Bruce was born a slave near Farmville, Prince Edward County, Va. His master had him educated, and before the Civil War he went to Missouri, where he organized the first school for African Americans in the state. In 1868, after 2 years at Oberlin College, he moved to Floreyville, Bolivar County, Miss., where he became a planter in the rich Mississippi Delta and acquired considerable property.
Soon after his arrival, Military Governor Adelbert Ames appointed him conductor of elections for a nearby county, and in 1870 he became sergeant at arms in the state senate. Bruce was highly regarded in Bolivar County, where he served as assessor, sheriff, county school superintendent, and member of the Board of Levee Commissioners. He was also tax collector, with prominent Republicans and Democrats posting the bond required for the position. When Ku Klux Klan-inspired violence began to rise, he was able to use his influence to prevent race riots in his home county. As a leader of the Republican party in Mississippi, he was elected in 1874 to the U.S. Senate.
Bruce was a handsome man with erect bearing and polished manners, and he and his wife were active in Washington society. In the Senate he served on important committees, spoke on behalf of the Native Americans and Chinese, advocated improvements on the Mississippi River, and worked to obtain pensions for African American Union Army veterans. He tried to prevent the removal of Federal troops from Mississippi, where their presence acted as a deterrent to terrorism. After the Democrats took over control of the state through intimidation and violence at the polls in 1875, he was instrumental in providing for an investigation of the election.
At the end of his 6-year term in the Senate he was appointed register of the Treasury by President James A. Garfield and later served as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia during the Harrison administration. Bruce continued to be a leader of the Republican party in Mississippi in the 1880s, often speaking from the same platform with white political friends and opponents, and he was a trustee of Howard University. President McKinley appointed him register of the Treasury again in 1895. He died in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 1898.
A sketch of Bruce's life is in Benjamin G. Brawley, Negro Builders and Heroes (1937). More detailed information on his career is in Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi: 1865-1890 (1947). See also Philip Sterling and Rayford Logan, Four Took Freedom: The Lives of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Robert Smalls, and Blanche K. Bruce (1967), and William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887; repr. 1968). □