Blanche Bruce

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Blanche Bruce
Blanche Bruce - Brady-Handy.jpg
Register of the Treasury
In office
December 3, 1897 March 17, 1898
President William McKinley
Preceded by Fount Tillman
Succeeded by Judson Lyons
In office
May 21, 1881 June 5, 1885
President James A. Garfield
Chester A. Arthur
Grover Cleveland
Preceded by Glenni Scofield
Succeeded by William Rosecrans
United States Senator
from Mississippi
In office
March 4, 1875 March 4, 1881
Preceded by Henry R. Pease
Succeeded by James Z. George
Personal details
Blanche Kelso Bruce

(1841-03-01)March 1, 1841
Farmville, Virginia, U.S.
DiedMarch 17, 1898(1898-03-17) (aged 57)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting place Woodlawn Cemetery
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Josephine Willson
Children Roscoe
Education Oberlin College

Blanche Kelso Bruce (March 1, 1841 March 17, 1898) was born a slave in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Later becoming a politician, he represented Mississippi as a Republican in the United States Senate from 1875 to 1881. He was the first elected African-American senator to serve a full term (Hiram R. Revels, also of Mississippi, was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate but did not complete a full term). [1]


Early life and education

Bruce's house at 909 M Street NW in Washington, D.C. was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975 BKBruce-house WashingtonDC.jpg
Bruce's house at 909 M Street NW in Washington, D.C. was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975

Bruce was born into slavery in 1841 in Prince Edward County, Virginia near Farmville to Polly Bruce, an African-American woman who served as a domestic slave. His father was her master, Pettis Perkinson, a white Virginia planter. Bruce was treated comparatively well by his father, who educated him together with a legitimate half-brother. When Blanche Bruce was young, he played with his half-brother. His father legally freed Blanche and arranged for an apprenticeship so he could learn a trade. [2]


Bruce taught school and attended for two years Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. He next worked as a steamboat porter on the Mississippi River. In 1864, he moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where he established a school for black children.

In 1868, during Reconstruction, Bruce relocated to Bolivar near Cleveland in northwestern Mississippi, at which he purchased a Mississippi Delta plantation. [3] He became a wealthy landowner of several thousand acres in the Mississippi Delta. He was appointed to the positions of Tallahatchie County registrar of voters and tax assessor before he won an election for sheriff in Bolivar County. [4] He later was elected to other county positions, including tax collector and supervisor of education, while he also edited a local newspaper. He became sergeant-at-arms for the Mississippi State Senate in 1870. [3]

In February 1874, Bruce was elected to the U.S. Senate, the second African American to serve in the upper house of Congress. On February 14, 1879, Bruce presided over the U.S. Senate, becoming the first African American (and the only former slave) to have done so. [2] In 1880, James Z. George was elected to succeed Bruce.

At the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Bruce became the first African American to win any votes for national office at a major party's nominating convention, with eight votes for vice president. The presidential nominee that year was Ohio's James A. Garfield, who narrowly won election over the Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock. [5]

Bruce served by appointment as the District of Columbia recorder of deeds from 1890 to 1893; his salary was $30,000 per year. [6] He also served on the District of Columbia Board of Trustees of Public Schools from 1892 to 1895. [7] He was a participant in the March 5, 1897 meeting to celebrate the memory of Frederick Douglass and the American Negro Academy led by Alexander Crummell. [8] He was appointed as Register of the Treasury a second time in 1897 by President William McKinley and served until his death from diabetes complications in 1898. [9]

Relationship with other African Americans

On the Bruce plantation in Mississippi, black sharecroppers lived in "flimsy wooden shacks," working in similar oppressive conditions to that of white-owned estates. [10]

After his Senate term expired, Bruce remained in Washington, D.C., secured a succession of Republican patronage jobs and stumped for Republican candidates across the country. There, he also acquired a large townhouse and summer home, and presided over black high society. [10]

One newspaper wrote that Bruce did not approve of the designation "colored men." He often said, "I am a Negro and proud of it." [3]

Personal life

On June 24, 1878, Bruce married Josephine Beal Willson (October 29, 1853 February 15, 1923), a fair-skinned socialite of Cleveland, Ohio, amid great publicity; the couple traveled to Europe for a four-month honeymoon. [11]

Their only child, Roscoe Conkling Bruce, was born in 1879. He was named for U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, Bruce's mentor in the Senate. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Blanche Bruce on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. [12]

In the fall of 1899, Josephine Bruce accepted the position of principal at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. [13] While visiting Josephine at Tuskegee, during the summer break of his senior year at Harvard, Roscoe Bruce met Booker T. Washington and secured a position at Tuskegee as head of the Academic Department. [13]

Honors and legacy

Blanche Kelso Bruce (2001) Blanche Kelso Bruce (2001).jpg
Blanche Kelso Bruce (2001)

In 1975, the residence of Bruce in the Shaw neighborhood was made a National Historic Landmark.

In October 1999, the U.S. Senate commissioned a portrait of Bruce. African-American Washington D.C. artist Simmie Knox was selected in 2000 to paint the portrait, which was unveiled in the Capitol in 2001.

A historical highway marker marking Bruce's birthplace at the intersection of highway 360 and 623 near Green Bay, Prince Edward County, Virginia was unveiled by the African American Heritage Preservation Foundation on March 1, 2006. [14]

Bruce School

In July 1898, the District of Columbia public school trustees ordered that a then new public school building on Marshall Street in Park View be named the Bruce School in his honor. [15] Marshall Street later became Kenyon Street and the Bruce School became Caesar Chavez Prep Middle School in 2009, named for the Mexican-American labor organizer Cesar Chavez. In 1973, the all-black Bruce School and James Monroe school were combined in a new campus as the integrated Bruce-Monroe. In 2008, the school was relocated to Park View and the old building demolished in 2009.

See also

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  1. Wikisource-logo.svg  Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Bruce, Blanche Kelso"  . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography . New York: D. Appleton.
  2. 1 2 Glass, Andrew (February 14, 2008). "Freed slave presides over Senate: February 14, 1879". The Politico .
  3. 1 2 3 Wright, John Aaron (2002). Discovering African American St. Louis: A Guide to Historic Sites. St. Louis, Missouri: Missouri History Museum.
  4. Rev. William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising, 1887. Pgs. 699-703. Geo. M. Rewell & Co., 1887
  5. Turkel, Stanley (2005). Heroes of the American Reconstruction: Profiles of Sixteen Educators, Politicians and Activists. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. p. 6. ISBN   0-7864-1943-1. Senator Bruce was also the first African-American to preside over the Senate and the first African-American whose signature appeared on all the nation's paper currency (as Register of the Treasury starting on May 18, 1881)
  6. "Blanche K. Bruce's New Office", Philadelphia Inquirer, January 30, 1890, p. 1.
  7. The Executive Documents of the House of Representatives for the third session of the fifty-third Congress 1894-1895. Government Printing Office. 1895. p. 819. Retrieved September 16, 2016.
  8. Seraile, William. Bruce Grit: The Black Nationalist Writings of John Edward Bruce. Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2003. p .110-111.
  9. "Blanche K. Bruce". Biography. Retrieved October 12, 2018.
  10. 1 2 "Rise and Fall of the House of Bruce". The Washington Post. Washington, D.C. July 2, 2006.
  11. Gardner, Eric (January 2006). Bruce, Josephine Beall Willson : African American National Biography. Oxford University Pres. ISBN   9780195301731.
  12. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN   1-57392-963-8.
  13. 1 2 "Roscoe Conkling Bruce and the District of Columbia's Public Schools, 1906 to 1921".
  14. African American Heritage Preservation Foundation, Inc. (February 13, 2006). "Dedication Ceremony honoring ex-slave Blanche Kelso Bruce, 1st Black senator to serve a full term". History News Network.
  15. Annual Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia for the year ended June 30, 1899. Government Printing Office. 1899. p. 36.


U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Henry R. Pease
United States Senator (Class 1) from Mississippi
Served alongside: James L. Alcorn, Lucius Lamar
Succeeded by
James Z. George
New office Chair of the Senate Mississippi River Levees Committee
Succeeded by
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Stephen Wallace Dorsey
Baby of the Senate
Succeeded by
Arthur Pue Gorman
Political offices
Preceded by
Glenni Scofield
Register of the Treasury
Succeeded by
William Rosecrans
Preceded by
Fount Tillman
Register of the Treasury
Succeeded by
Judson Lyons