Blanche Kelso Bruce

United States Senator

Republican of Mississippi

Forty-fourth -- Forty-sixth Congresses

The first Black person to serve a full tern in the United States Senate, Blanche Kelso Bruce was born in slavery near Farmville, Virginia, on March 1, 1841. He was tutored by his master's son and worked as a field hand and printer's apprentice as his master moved him from Virginia to Mississippi and Missouri.Bruce escaped slavery at the opening of the Civil War and attempted to enlist in the Union Army. After the military refused his application, he taught school, briefly attended Oberlin College, and worked as a steamboat porter on the Mississippi River.

In 1864 he settled in Hannibal, Missouri, and organized the state's first school for blacks. Five years later he moved to Mississippi where he entered local politics and established himself as a prosperous landowner. In quick succession he was appointed registrar of voters in Tallahatchie County, tax assessor of Bolivar County, elected sheriff and tax collector of Bolivar where he also served as supervisor of education.On a trip to the state capital of Jackson in 1870, Bruce gained the attention of powerful white Republicans who dominated Mississippi's Reconstruction government.

These men secured more appointments for Bruce and made him the most recognized black political leader in the state. In February 1874, the Mississippi legislature elected Bruce to the United States Senate.Bruce formally entered the Senate on March 5, 1875, and was elected to three committees: Pensions; Manufactures; and Education and Labor. During the Forty-fifth Congress (1877-79) he served on the Select Committee on the Levee System of the Mississippi River. Although slighted by his Mississippi colleague, James L. Alcorn, Bruce won the friendship and support of Republican senators such as Roscoe Conkling (for whom Bruce would name his only child), and enjoyed a more amicable relationship with Alcorn's Democratic successor, Lucius Q.C. Lamar.

Bruce made repeated though futile attempts to convince his fellow senators to seat Louisiana's former governor and black political leader, P.B.S. Pinchback. He encouraged the government to be more generous in issuing western land grants to black emigrants and favored distribution of duty-free clothing from England to needy blacks who had emigrated to Kansas from the South. Bruce also appealed for the desegregation of United States Army units and for a Senate inquiry into the violent Mississippi elections of 1875.

As a member and temporary chairman of the Committee on River Improvements, he advocated the development of a channel and levee system and construction of the Mississippi Valley and Ship Island Railroad.On February 14, 1879, during debate on a Chinese exclusion bill that he opposed, Bruce became the first black senator to preside over a Senate session. In April he was appointed chairman of the Select Committee to Investigate the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company. Bruce's six-member committee issued a report naming bank officials who were guilty of fraud and incompetence. Eventually about 61,000 depositors victimized by the bank's 1874 failure received a portion of their money.

In January 1880 the Mississippi legislature, now controlled by Democrats, chose James Z. George to succeed Bruce. Before his term ended the following March, Bruce continued to be an activist senator, calling for a more equitable and humane Indian policy and demanding a War Department investigation of the brutal harassment of a black West Point cadet. At the 1880 Republican convention in Chicago, Bruce served briefly as presiding officer and received eight votes for vice president. Following the close of his Senate service on March 3, 1881, Bruce rejected an offer of the ministry to Brazil because slavery was still practiced there.

All but one member of the Mississippi congressional delegation endorsed Bruce for a seat in President Garfield's cabinet, but he instead received appointment as registrar of the treasury and served until the Democrats regained power in 1885. Bruce became a lecturer, an author of magazine articles, and was superintendent of the exhibit on black achievement at the World's Cotton Exposition in New Orleans during 1884-1885.

In 1888 Bruce received eleven votes for vice president at the convention that nominated Benjamin Harrison.Harrison, as president, appointed Bruce recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia in 1889. After leaving this office in 1893 Bruce was a trustee of public schools in Washington, D.C., and again registrar of the treasury from 1897 until his death in Washington on March 17, 1898.

For further reading:

Drake, Sadie D. St. Clair. " The National Career of Blanche Kelso Bruce." Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1947.

Harris, William C. "Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist." In Southern Black Leaders of The Reconstruction Era, edited by Howard N. Rabinowitz, pp 3-38, Urbana:University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Mann, Kenneth E. "Blanche Kelso Bruce: United States Senator without a Constituency." Journal of Mississippi History 38 (May 1976): pp. 183-198.

Shapiro, Samuel L. "A Black Senator from Mississippi: Blanche K. Bruce (1841-1898)." Review of Politics 44 (January 1982): pp. 83-109.