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

by Lawrence Otis Graham

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This is the true story of America's first black dynasty. The years after the Civil War represented an astonishing moment of opportunity for African-Americans. The rush to build a racially democratic society from the ruins of slavery is never more evident than in the personal history of Blanche Kelso Bruce and his heirs.

Born a slave in 1841, Bruce became a local


This is the true story of America's first black dynasty. The years after the Civil War represented an astonishing moment of opportunity for African-Americans. The rush to build a racially democratic society from the ruins of slavery is never more evident than in the personal history of Blanche Kelso Bruce and his heirs.

Born a slave in 1841, Bruce became a local Mississippi sheriff, developed a growing Republican power base, amassed a real-estate fortune, and became the first black to serve a full Senate term. He married Josephine Willson, the daughter of a wealthy black Philadelphia doctor. Together they broke racial barriers as a socialite couple in 1880s Washington, D.C.

By befriending President Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and a cadre of liberal black and white Republicans, Bruce spent six years in the U.S. Senate, then gained appointments under four presidents (Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, and McKinley), culminating with a top Treasury post, which placed his name on all U.S. currency.

During Reconstruction, the Bruce family entertained lavishly in their two Washington town houses and acquired an 800-acre plantation, homes in four states, and a fortune that allowed their son and grandchildren to attend Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, beginning in 1896.

The Senator's legacy would continue with his son, Roscoe, who became both a protégé of Booker T. Washington and a superintendent of Washington, D.C.'s segregated schools. When the family moved to New York in the 1920s and formed an alliance with John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Bruces became an enviable force in Harlem society. Their public battle to get their grandson admitted into Harvard University's segregated dormitories elicited the support of people like W. E. B. Du Bois and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and broke brave new ground for blacks of their day.

But in the end, the Bruce dynasty's wealth and stature would disappear when the Senator's grandson landed in prison following a sensational trial and his Radcliffe-educated granddaughter married a black Hollywood actor who passed for white.

By drawing on Senate records, historic documents, and the personal letters of Senator Bruce, Josephine, their colleagues, friends, children, and grandchildren, author Lawrence Otis Graham weaves a riveting social history that spans 120 years. From Mississippi to Washington, D.C., to New York, The Senator and the Socialite provides a fascinating look into the history of race and class in America.

Editorial Reviews

“In another piece of powerful nonfiction, Lawrence Otis Graham returns to the shelves with The Senator and The Socialite.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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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.
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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.

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