The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty


Blanche Kelso Bruce was born a slave in 1841, yet, remarkably, amassed a real-estate fortune and became the first black man to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. He married Josephine Willson—the daughter of a wealthy black Philadelphia doctor—and together they broke down racial barriers in 1880s Washington, D.C., numbering President Ulysses S. Grant among their influential friends. The Bruce family achieved a level of wealth and power unheard of for people of color in nineteenth-century America. Yet later ...

See more details below
Paperback (Reprint)
$13.36 price
(Save 16%)$15.99 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (29) from $3.80   
  • New (12) from $4.52   
  • Used (17) from $3.80   
The Senator and the Socialite

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$11.79 price


Blanche Kelso Bruce was born a slave in 1841, yet, remarkably, amassed a real-estate fortune and became the first black man to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. He married Josephine Willson—the daughter of a wealthy black Philadelphia doctor—and together they broke down racial barriers in 1880s Washington, D.C., numbering President Ulysses S. Grant among their influential friends. The Bruce family achieved a level of wealth and power unheard of for people of color in nineteenth-century America. Yet later generations would stray from the proud Bruce legacy, stumbling into scandal and tragedy.

Drawing on Senate records, historical documents, and personal letters, author Lawrence Otis Graham weaves a riveting social history that offers a fascinating look at race, politics, and class in America.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841-98) was born a slave but became the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate term. This truly self-made man was no submissive token; his intellectual and persuasive powers were recognized by even his racist opponents. Lawrence Otis Graham's biography, the first ever of this important transitional figure, places Bruce's contribution and legacy in stark historical context.
Biloxi Sun Herald
“Graham is an incisive historian [who] brings Senator Bruce to life through his careful research and clear narrative.”
Wall Street Journal
“Informative…many striking tales. Mr. Graham is right to want to bring the story to a reading public.”
“Graham details the political machinations of the post-Reconstruction South and one man’s attempt to build and maintain a dynasty.”
New York Post
“This book opens the door to a rich, though frustrating, period in the country’s past.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Excellent history of slavery, Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, late 19th century politics and the misunderstood differences between early Republicans and Democrats.”
U.S. News & World Report
“A rare, detailed glimpse into politics, race, and class in post-Reconstruction America.”
Book Page
“Provides thorough and solid historical detail, political analysis and cultural discussion. Entertaining, intriguing and sometimes amazing story.”
Chicago Tribune
“Not just a history but a revealing commentary on race and class, and their force in shaping our lives today.”
“In another piece of powerful nonfiction, Lawrence Otis Graham returns to the shelves with The Senator and The Socialite.”
Chicago Sun-Times
“Graham paints a compelling portrait of the important role Bruce played in the country’s history.”
Amsterdam News
“Graham is a superb storyteller, and the Bruce dynasty perfect fodder for this gifted writer.”
USA Today
“Graham’s strength is his intricate deliniation of class, color, culture and social climbing.”
The New Yorker
“Graham...recovers the history of a family that broke barriers in Washington and at Exeter and Harvard.”
Washington Post
“A compelling portrait of the Bruce family’s rise, dynamics and downfall…A poignant tale of struggle, accomplishment…an illuminating account.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Graham expertly breaks down historical events.”
“Graham digs deep and unearths secrets in…his absorbing book on money, class and color issues.”
“In another piece of powerful nonfiction, Lawrence Otis Graham returns to the shelves with The Senator and The Socialite.”
The New Yorker
In 1878, the Times ran its first wedding announcement for a black couple: Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, a former slave who entered the Senate in the fading days of Reconstruction (many newspapers ignored his election, assuming that he would never be seated), and Josephine Willson, a daughter of the light-skinned black élite. The Bruces established what the author calls America’s first black dynasty, although its members “lived much of their lives outside of black circles.” Graham, whose “Our Kind of People” profiled the black upper class, recovers the history of a family that broke barriers in Washington and at Exeter and Harvard. At the same time, he offers a devastating view of the compromises it made. The Bruces’ son was an “intellectual dandy” and snob who described a black revival meeting as “a reversion into barbarism.” When the family, “after years of favoring . . . white acquaintances” over “accomplished black men,” was engulfed in scandal, it found that it had few allies in either community.
Eric Foner
It is a poignant tale of struggle, accomplishment and weakness -- and an illuminating account of American racism.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Buried within this account of a black family that includes "a United States senator; a bank president; [and] a Washington socialite" is a rags to riches to welfare tale that ought to intrigue, but merely bores. Slave-born Blanche K. Bruce (1841-1898) was the first African-American to serve a full term in the United State Senate (1874-1880). Having obtained wealth in addition to political clout in Mississippi, he acquired elite class status through his marriage to Josephine Willson, daughter of a wealthy dentist whose freeborn roots extended back to the late 18th century. The first half of this repetitious family biography focuses largely on Bruce's political life, the second on his son Roscoe, who after a stint at Tuskegee returns to Washington as superintendent of "Colored Schools." The family spirals through a decline that finds Roscoe managing an apartment complex in Harlem and his sons jailed for fraud. In tracing the fortunes of the clan, Graham (Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class) allows an absorption with class status to obscure fresher areas, such as Blanche Bruce's involvement in the serious work of the black women's club movement. (July) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Graham, an attorney and noted author (e.g., Our Kind of People), tells the fascinating story of Blanche K. Bruce, the first African American elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate (he represented Mississippi from 1875 to 1881), and of his heiress wife, family, and descendants. Graham opens with an account of Bruce's rise from Virginia slavery to a position of power and influence, first in the Senate, then as a government bureaucrat in Washington, DC, until his death in 1898. He then details the sad story of the downward mobility experienced by Bruce's son, Roscoe, and grandson, Roscoe Jr. The family's downfall was propelled partly by an extravagant lifestyle that ultimately went beyond its means and culminated in a jail term served by Roscoe Jr. in the 1930s. In the end, Blanche's son worked in a laundry despite his Harvard degree, and his granddaughter passed for white. Unfortunately, this interesting saga is marred by errors: whole sentences are repeated unnecessarily, the chronology is often confusing, and Boston, it seems, is 500 miles from New York City. Still, given the importance of the story it tells, this is recommended for major libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/06.] A.O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A former slave, Blanche Kelso Bruce, becomes a U.S. Senator (1875-81), a man of wealth and prestige; a couple of generations later, all is gone. Graham, who has published previously on race and class (Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class, 1999, etc.), ends with a sad image. At a 2002 unveiling of a portrait of Sen. Bruce in the U.S. Capitol, only one member of the populous Bruce family attended. (Some, we learn, are apparently passing for white.) The author charts the spectacular rise and fall of the Bruces. Born in 1841, Bruce moved around a bit with his white owners, who were involved both in tobacco and cotton. After his manumission (the details of which are sketchy), Bruce barely escaped Quantrill's raiders in Kansas and, after a brief stop at Oberlin College (he ran out of money, didn't graduate), ended up in Mississippi, where he profited mightily from Reconstruction and from the recent enfranchisement of freed slaves. After holding a few offices (including county sheriff), Bruce won the Senate election in the state legislature and headed off to Washington. He married a well-to-do woman from a prominent black family and with his own healthy investments in Mississippi real estate, they lived well and sent their son, Roscoe, to Phillips Exeter and Harvard, where he excelled. After the senator died, both his widow and son worked for Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. But Roscoe, says Graham, was an arrogant man who preferred the company of whites, and he soon fell from grace (he'd once dined with the Rockefellers). The fortune melted away in the next generation-as did the prestige. Roscoe's son (also named Roscoe) served a prison sentence; a daughter passed for white;a third son also had legal difficulties. Graham's research is impressive and comprehensive-though some disjointedness, abruptness and occasional omissions suggest substantial textual cuts. A compelling story that shows how the American Dream can transmute into the American Nightmare.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060985134
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/3/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 344,771
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

The author of fourteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Our Kind of People, and a contributing editor for Reader's Digest, Lawrence Otis Graham's work has also appeared in the New York Times, Essence, and The Best American Essays. He lives with his wife in Manhattan and Chappaqua, New York.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

The Senator and the Socialite

The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty
By Lawrence Otis Graham

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Lawrence Otis Graham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060184124

Chapter One


A Senator Is Sworn In and a Dynasty Begins

On the Friday morning of march 5, 1875, the first black man elected to a full term as senator of the United States, Blanche Kelso Bruce of Mississippi, sat in seat number two of the Senate Chamber, awaiting his swearing in. Behind him, in the mammoth room, stretched the crescent-shaped arrangement of wide wooden seats. There were three rows of chairs with a desk for every seat -- seventy-four in all -- one for each of the two senators from the thirty-seven states that, in 1875, made up the Union. Tall Corinthian pilasters framed the room.

Thanks to windows high above in the thirty-five-foot iron-and-glass ceiling, the otherwise windowless room was not as dim as the new senator from Mississippi might have expected. As Bruce sat there on his first day, dressed in a black waistcoat, bow tie, and a stiff cotton shirt, with his handlebar mustache and a fourteen-karat gold pocket watch, he might have convinced himself that he was the very picture of a Reconstruction survivor who had succeeded and who proved that leaders could be elected and accepted, regardless of their color. He might haveconvinced himself that he was living proof that race and class no longer mattered in the United States, that it was possible for a black former slave from Virginia to overcome poverty, bigotry, and political differences in order to enjoy the same success that white men of achievement were enjoying. But it would have been almost impossible to really believe those things.

By the time Blanche Bruce arrived in Washington, DC, for his swearing-in ceremony, Reconstruction policies had been in place for nearly ten years, making it possible for blacks in Southern states not only to vote but also to run for office and receive municipal, state, and federal appointments.

But now that Bruce finally had been elected, the tide was already starting to turn against blacks -- particularly in his home state of Mississippi. Although the Northern states were in step with the liberal Republicans who controlled Congress, Mississippi residents were unwilling to allow this national liberal mood to continue sweeping through their state, even if it meant they had to rely on coercion and illegal activity. There, the white Democrats and hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were inciting racial violence and organizing aggressive ballot-stuffing in order to discourage black citizens and black candidates from voting or running for office. At the very moment Bruce sat in the Senate, his white constituents back home were contemplating methods for driving black legislators out of office, and his primary mentor, Governor Adelbert Ames, was losing control of Mississippi to renegade groups. Even the newspapers in his home state were supporting the suppression of black freedmen as a means to stomp out Reconstruction and return to the old order.

It was clear to Bruce and many other black political figures that Reconstruction's underpinnings were never fully accepted by white Southerners. It had been undermined at each step since it was first introduced by President Lincoln in 1865. When the liberal Republican anti-slavery president was shot just five days after the Confederate Army surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, black Americans inherited a new pro-slavery president. Besides being a virulent racist and former Tennessee Democrat, Andrew Johnson did not believe in black equality and sought to veto all congressional acts that attempted to give the recently freed blacks an education, job training, or even citizenship. He also opposed any military protection for blacks against violence from newly established hate groups such as the Klan. As a native Southerner himself, Johnson was so sympathetic to the vanquished Confederate states he permitted them to establish discriminatory Black Codes that severely limited the movement, activities, and rights of recently freed blacks. Bruce's home state of Mississippi had been the first to create these codes. It was not until the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which provided for military rule in Southern states, that black citizens finally benefited from the new legal rights and opportunities that were promised to them at the end of the Civil War. It was then that blacks could finally play a role in drafting new state constitutions and run for positions in political party conventions. Almost immediately, in 1868, the first black was elected to the House of Representatives.1

By 1875, many of the Democratic newspapers in Mississippi and other parts of the South argued that white citizens should begin voting along "color lines" and using "the aggressive instincts of the white people" to defeat the blacks and the Republicans.2 During the same month that Bruce was sworn in to the U.S. Senate, one of his own state's newspapers, The Hinds County Gazette, would run a pro-Democrat editorial that said, "[Governor] Ames and his negroes [have] swept away every vestige of republican government in Mississippi" and that the people "have been robbed of their birthright."3 This message of racial hatred was beginning to turn the tide against the freed blacks, even as Blanche Bruce won the right to represent his state in the Senate.

Bruce must have been nervous as he looked around the poorly ventilated Senate chamber, waiting to be sworn in. Staring down at him was the broad second-floor gallery that wrapped around all four sides of the chamber. Only a few rays of light broke through the twenty-one glass ceiling panels. Crowded toward the front, the seventy-four desks and their occupants all faced the lectern and the vice president's desk, where Bruce and twenty-two other men would be sworn in that day.

At noon, Vice President Henry Wilson called the room to order. "O Thou Almighty and everlasting God, the maker of heaven and earth," began Reverend Byron Sunderland, the Senate chaplain, as he offered the opening prayer. "Give them to see eye to eye, in all the grave matters of this nation committed to their charge, and in all their labors and responsibilities may they lean upon Thy arm for support. Through Jesus Christ. Amen."4


Excerpted from The Senator and the Socialite by Lawrence Otis Graham Copyright © 2006 by Lawrence Otis Graham. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing 1 – 3 of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2006

    A Captivating and Educational Read!

    I extremely enjoyed this book as it provided an insightful and often moving portrayal of Blanche K. Bruce, the first african-american senator elected to a full 6-year term, and the glorious dynasty that followed. I loved reading about the distinctions between class, race, and culture and how the Bruce family managed to prosper despite living in a climate of segregation and racism. A highly recommended read not only for history lovers, but for those who treasure intriguing and very thought-provoking tales.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2011

    Interesting and Entertaining

    Read the book a few years ago out of curiosity to see what Mr. Graham had dug up about Blanche Kelso Bruce, who happens to be an ancestor of my husband's. To my understanding Mr. Graham may have made the book more of an entertaining non-fact filled read according to some members of the Bruce family.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing 1 – 3 of 2 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)