Michael Stoll: Blanche Bruce — A man of many firsts

Published 6:30 am Saturday, February 20, 2021

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Since February is Black History Month, I felt it would be remiss if I didn’t write a column about one of the country’s greatest Black pioneers, Blanche Kelso Bruce.

Bruce is virtually unknown by many, but his is an example of a true rags-to-riches story, one that began before the Civil War.

Born March 1, 1841, in Farmville, Virginia, Bruce was the son of a slave woman, Polly Bruce, and her master, Pettus Perkinson. His original name was “Branch,” but he changed it to “Blanche” as a teenager and adopted the middle name “Kelso” for unknown reasons. Bruce spent his early years in slavery as the personal servant to his half-brother, William Perkinson. Despite his status as a slave, Bruce was allowed to study under William’s tutor and by all accounts was given status nearly equal to that of Pettus’s other children.

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During the Civil War, Bruce escaped slavery and made his way to Kansas, where his attempt to enlist in the Union Army was rejected. He taught school in Lawrence, Kansas, before moving to Hannibal, Missouri, in 1864. There he established the first school for Black children. He then tried to attain a divinity degree from Oberlin College, but was unable to afford the tuition, prompting him to work as a steamboat porter on the Mississippi River before moving to Mississippi in 1869.

Bruce became interested in politics when he attended a speech by Mississippi gubernatorial candidate James Alcorn, a moderate Republican who advocated for civil rights at least initially). In 1870, Bruce went to Jackson and impressed Republican leaders so much that Military Governor Adelbert Ames appointed him the registrar of voters of Tallahatchie County. Later that year, the Mississippi Legislature elected Bruce as the sergeant-at-arms.

As time went on, Bruce continued to make a prominent name for himself, serving as sheriff, tax collector and superintendent of education of Bolivar County, as well as a member of the board of levee commissioners. He also became a prominent planter and plantation owner, amassing a decent fortune in the process.

But Bruce’s biggest achievement came on Feb. 4, 1874, when the Mississippi Legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. Bruce was the second Black man to be elected to the U.S. Senate (the first was Hiram Rhodes Revels (1870-71), also from Mississippi) and the first to be elected to a full six-year term. He was also the only former slave to ever serve as a U.S. senator.

When Bruce was sworn-in on March 5, 1875, the precedent at the time was for the state’s senior senator to escort the junior senator to the podium. Alcorn, Mississippi’s senior senator, refused to do so because Bruce was allied to his political enemy, Ames. As Bruce approached the podium alone, Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York stepped forward and escorted Bruce to the podium. Conkling proved to be a powerful ally for Bruce, securing him appointments to the Education and Labor, Manufactures, Select, and Pensions Committees.

As a senator, Bruce advocated for the rights of Black Americans. In 1876, he petitioned his colleagues to seat Louisiana’s Pinckney Pinchback (the country’s first Black state governor) in the Senate; the Senate ultimately rejected Pinchback’s nomination after his political opponent’s questioned the legitimacy of the Louisiana Legislature’s selection. Bruce fought particularly hard for Black servicemen, going so far as to unsuccessfully promote the idea of integrating the U.S. armed forces. He advocated legislation that prevented discrimination against the heirs of Black soldiers’ Civil War pensions and called upon an investigation into the brutal attack of Johnson Whittaker, the first Black cadet to be appointed to West Point (Whittaker was found tied to his bed, unconscious and bleeding, on April 5, 1880. West Point administrators later expelled Whittaker via court martial on claims he fabricated the attack).

Bruce also had a reputation for defending other ethnic and racial minorities. He openly opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act; during a debate on the act on Feb. 14, 1879, Bruce became the first Black senator to preside over the U.S. Senate. He also advocated for better treatment of Native Americans, arguing that the nation’s policy toward Native Americans was “controlled by stern selfishness.”

Despite his efforts, many of his Black constituents questioned his commitment to the plight of freedmen, many of who faced violence at the hands of white supremacists in post-Reconstruction Mississippi. His personal wealth further alienated him from Black voters, who felt he could not relate to the struggles of poor Blacks. Post-Reconstruction changes in the political landscape of Mississippi also saw widespread suppression of the Black vote through violence, intimidation and voter fraud. When the Mississippi Legislature met in 1880, Bruce made not attempt to lobby for a second Senate term.

Bruce continued to stay active in politics after leaving the Senate. During the 1880 Republican National Convention, he received eight votes for vice president, making him he first Black man to receive convention votes from either of the major national parties (he received 11 during the 1888 RNC). In 1881, President James Garfield appointed Bruce as register of the U.S. Treasury, making him the first Black man to have his name printed on U.S. currency. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison named him recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, a position he held until he received an honorary LL.D. and joined the board of trustees for Howard University. In 1897, he returned to the Treasury, working there until his death on March 17, 1898.—