Blanche Kelso Bruce, a Reconstruction-era senator from Mississippi, was born a slave in Virginia in 1841. He went to Missouri as the servant of his owner’s son, gained training as a printer, escaped to Kansas during the Civil War, and subsequently attended Oberlin College. He set up a school for African Americans in Missouri and in 1868 moved to Mississippi, where he entered politics as a Republican and quickly gained both popularity and wealth in Bolivar County. At one point in the early 1870s, Bruce simultaneously held the influential positions of school superintendent, sheriff, and tax collector. He grew wealthy investing in real estate, owned a large and successful plantation, and started and operated a newspaper, the Floreyville Star.
Bruce used his popularity to run for the US Senate in 1874. He condemned efforts by the Democratic Party to overturn African American voting rights, writing with other Republican politicians that if the Democrats returned to office, “the colored man will at once sink back to the status he held in 1865—free in name but not in fact.” In the Senate, Bruce supported efforts to improve education for African Americans, investigated the failure of the once-promising Freedman’s Bank, and criticized his colleagues for refusing to seat P. B. S. Pinchback, whom Louisiana voters had elected to represent them. Bruce worked closely with powerful senators such as New York’s Roscoe Conkling, and in 1879 Bruce and wife, Josephine, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, named their son Roscoe Conkling Bruce.
Mississippi voters turned Bruce out of office in 1880 in favor of a Democrat who supported white supremacy. Bruce moved to Washington, D.C., and received several appointed positions in the federal government. He was also popular as a speaker. Bruce and his family were part of what historian Willard Gatewood has called “Aristocrats of Color,” wealthy and powerful African Americans at the center of Washington social life. After Bruce died in 1898, Josephine Bruce moved to Alabama to take a position as principal of Tuskegee Institute. Both Roscoe Conkling Bruce and his son attended Harvard University.
- Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction (1990)
- John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (7th ed., 1947)
- Willard B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920 (1990)
- William C. Harris, The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi (1979)
- Melvin Urofsky, Journal of Mississippi History (May 1967)