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Blanche Kelso Bruce

the first black to serve a full term in the United States Senate

Blanche Kelso Bruce

Blanche Kelso Bruce was born into 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 from his master shortly after outbreak of the Civil War and made his way to Lawrence, Kansas, where he survived William Quantrill's raid. After the Union Army refused his application to enlist, he taught school, briefly attended Oberlin College, and worked as a steamboat porter on the Mississippi River. In 1864, Bruce settled in Hannibal, Missouri, where he organized the state's first school for blacks. In 1869, Bruce moved to Mississippi, where he established himself as a prosperous landowner and entered local politics. In quick succession he was appointed Registrar of Voters in Tallahatchie County, tax assessor of Bolivar County, and elected Sheriff and tax collector of Bolivar, where he also served as Supervisor of Education. By 1870 Bruce had gained the attention of powerful white Republicans who secured even more appointments for him and made him the most recognized black man in the state.

In February 1874, the Mississippi Legislature elected Bruce to the United States Senate, and he officially took office on March 5, 1875. During his term Bruce encouraged the government to be more generous in issuing western land grants to black emigrants, favored distribution of duty-free clothing from England to needy blacks who had emigrated to Kansas from the South, appealed for the desegregation of U.S. Army units, and favored 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 of that same year he was appointed Chairman of the Select Committee to Investigate the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company. Partially as a result of that committee's investigation, about 61,000 depositors victimized by the bank's 1874 failure received a portion of their money back. In January 1880, the Mississippi Legislature, now controlled by Democrats, chose James Z. George to succeed Bruce. His term officially ended on March 3, 1881.

At the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Bruce served briefly as presiding officer and even received eight votes for Vice-President.

After leaving the Senate, 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 James Garfield's Cabinet, but he instead received appointment as Registrar of the Treasury and served in that capacity until the Democrats regained power in 1885. He then 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 (1884-1885). In 1888, he received eleven votes for Vice-President at the convention that nominated Benjamin Harrison. As President, Harrison appointed Bruce Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, in which capacity he served from 1889 to 1893. Bruce next served as a trustee of public schools in Washington, D.C., and then as Registrar of the Treasury from 1897 until his death in Washington on March 17, 1898.

Civil War
William Quantrill
President James Garfield
Benjamin Harrison

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Late 19th Century, 1865-1900 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on September 24, 2017.