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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 ...
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Drawing on Senate records, historical documents, and personal letters, author Lawrence Otis Graham weaves a riveting social history that offers a fascinating look at race, politics, and class in America.
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.
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Posted July 11, 2006
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.
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Posted October 30, 2011
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 29, 2009
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