Who was Blanche Bruce?

Blanche Bruce  (March 1, 1841 – March 17, 1898)

In every job, there has to be someone who is the first to do it. Trailblazing is not always easy or comfortable. Blanche Bruce was the first African American to serve a full term in the US Senate.

Blanche was born into slavery in Prince Edward County, Virginia, a product of a union between his mother Polly, and her white master, Pettis Parkinson. Unlike so many in similar situations, Blanche was treated well and educated along with his half brother. He escaped to Kansas and attempted to join the Union army, which was not yet accepting Negroes. Settling in Lawrence, he taught school briefly, then attended Oberlin College. He dropped out due to a lack of funds and then worked on a steamboat as a porter.

After the conclusion of the Civil War, Blanche moved to Missouri, and established a school for black children in Hannibal. Mark Twain had already left town by then, so the two never met. His school was successful. After relocating to Mississippi, he was appointed the superintendent of schools for Bolivar county. To everyone’s amazement, he transformed the Bolivar County school system into one of the best in the state, actually implementing the mandate of “separate but equal”.

Blanche disliked the term “colored man”. He said, “I am a Negro, and proud of it.”

His position allowed him extra funds, and he invested in real estate, taking over a failing plantation, and making it successful. His wealth and prestige in the state increased. His attention turned to politics, brought on by a split in the Mississippi Republican Party. One faction wished to exclude Negroes, and the other responded by cutting out conservative whites. Bruce disagreed with the Radical Republicans because he believed that political stability required biracial cooperation, but joined the anti-conservative white faction out of self-preservation. In 1873, the governor offered Blanche the lieutenant governor’s post, to replace the retiring incumbent. Blanche turned it down but then was elected US Senator by the legislature.

When Blanche arrived in the U.S. Senate Chamber on March 5, 1875, precedent called for his state’s senior Senator to escort him to the podium, but Senator Alcorn snubbed the junior Senator because of his alliance with Governor Ames. Blanche walked up the aisle alone, only the second black in the US Senate, until Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York offered to escort him. Thereafter Bruce had a powerful ally in Conkling, who coached him in Senate procedures and procured him assignments on influential committees, such as the Education and Labor, Manufactures, and Pensions committees.

Though initially quiet, Blanche began to speak out on issues related to the rights of African Americans – first on the refusal of the Senate to seat a black colleague from Louisiana, then on the rights of black veterans, to make sure black soldiers and their families from the Civil War got the pensions to which they were entitled. He unsuccessfully initiated legislation to eliminate segregation in the US Army and championed the rights of other minority groups, including Native Americans and Chinese. He disagreed with the Chinese Exclusion Act and became the first African American to preside over the US Senate during the debate on the bill.

Blanche met and courted Josephine Beall Wilson of Ohio—the first black teacher in the Cleveland public schools and the daughter of a prominent mulatto dentist— and married on June 24, 1878. Ironically, Blanche was often seen as privileged, and not as popular among black voters as the white constituents. Yet his advocacy for blacks and minorities alienated white conservatives. When the Democratic Mississippi legislature gathered to select a new Senator in January 1880, Bruce did not even attempt a bid for a second term. The legislature chose Democrat James Z. George to succeed him.

Many sponsored him for posts under the Grover Cleveland administration, but he was passed over, and himself turned down ambassador to Brazil, due to that nation’s stance on slavery. Finally, he was appointed the register for the US Treasury and later succeeded in that position by Union General William Rosencrans.

He continued to reside in Washington until he succumbed to a kidney ailment due to complications from diabetes on March 17, 1898.