Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841-1898), African American political leader in Mississippi, was the first member of his race to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate.
On March 1, 1841, Blanche Kelso Bruce was born a slave near Farmville, Prince Edward County, Va. His master had him educated, and before the Civil War he went to Missouri, where he organized the first school for African Americans in the state. In 1868, after 2 years at Oberlin College, he moved to Floreyville, Bolivar County, Miss., where he became a planter in the rich Mississippi Delta and acquired considerable property.
Soon after his arrival, Military Governor Adelbert Ames appointed him conductor of elections for a nearby county, and in 1870 he became sergeant at arms in the state senate. Bruce was highly regarded in Bolivar County, where he served as assessor, sheriff, county school superintendent, and member of the Board of Levee Commissioners. He was also tax collector, with prominent Republicans and Democrats posting the bond required for the position. When Ku Klux Klan-inspired violence began to rise, he was able to use his influence to prevent race riots in his home county. As a leader of the Republican party in Mississippi, he was elected in 1874 to the U.S. Senate.
Bruce was a handsome man with erect bearing and polished manners, and he and his wife were active in Washington society. In the Senate he served on important committees, spoke on behalf of the Native Americans and Chinese, advocated improvements on the Mississippi River, and worked to obtain pensions for African American Union Army veterans. He tried to prevent the removal of Federal troops from Mississippi, where their presence acted as a deterrent to terrorism. After the Democrats took over control of the state through intimidation and violence at the polls in 1875, he was instrumental in providing for an investigation of the election.
At the end of his 6-year term in the Senate he was appointed register of the Treasury by President James A. Garfield and later served as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia during the Harrison administration. Bruce continued to be a leader of the Republican party in Mississippi in the 1880s, often speaking from the same platform with white political friends and opponents, and he was a trustee of Howard University. President McKinley appointed him register of the Treasury again in 1895. He died in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 1898.
Further Reading on Blanche Kelso Bruce
A sketch of Bruce's life is in Benjamin G. Brawley, Negro Builders and Heroes (1937). More detailed information on his career is in Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi: 1865-1890 (1947). See also Philip Sterling and Rayford Logan, Four Took Freedom: The Lives of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Robert Smalls, and Blanche K. Bruce (1967), and William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887; repr. 1968).