Blanche Kelso Bruce
March 1, 1841 – March 17, 1898
Notable: Politician & Entrepreneur
Blanche Bruce was born a slave in Farmville, Virginia. His father Pettus Perkinson was a plantation owner who also owned his mother, a slave named Polly, for whom Bruce was her 11th child. When Bruce was eight, Perkinson relocated his plantation to Mississippi and Bruce began picking cotton.
The group again relocated but this time to Missouri and at some point Bruce became a personal servant to his half brother. It was during this time that he began receiving an education from his half-brother and his half-brother’s private tutor. Bruce developed a deep interest in learning which his mother encouraged and his father allowed.
Yet, Bruce was still enslaved and while he had some privileges compared to other slaves, he also endured cruelty. At around the age of 21, Bruce took advantage of the Civil War to escape to Kansas. But witnessing violence there motivated him to return to Missouri where he was now a free man rather than a fugitive slave. While in Missouri he launched the state’s first school for Black children.
Sources state that Bruce either attended Oberlin College in Ohio before dropping out for financial reasons or was unable to attend for financial reasons. Either way, he spent a few years working out of St. Louis on a steamboat as a porter before moving to Mississippi where he became a cotton farmer.
Bruce joined the Mississippi Republican Party and entered politics where he became a conductor of elections, sergeant-at-arms of the state senate, tax assessor, sheriff, and County Superintendent of Education. By the early 1870s, Blanche Bruce was being considered for higher ranking state government positions.
Despite the times, many White farmers felt comfortable with Bruce because he was moderate and a mulatto. Also, while he believed in civil rights for Black people he did not believe in the need for social equality between the races. The combination of these factors meant that some White farmers did not fear that Bruce would push for substantial changes to the state’s racial practices.
Passing on the position of lieutenant governor, Blanche Bruce instead successfully campaigned for the U.S. Senate in 1875. This made him the second Black person in the Senate but the first to serve a full term. Bruce pushed for integration of the U.S. Army, led an investigation into the collapse of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust, and also defended the interests of Black veterans and servicemen. But his upbringing and place in Washington’s high society made it difficult for Black constituents to relate to him. And as Reconstruction drew to a close, politicians in Mississippi were working to implement the systems that would remove Black people from political power for 100 years.
Due to Black politicians being shut out of Mississippi politics, Blanche Bruce remained in Washington, DC after leaving the Senate. He received two presidential appointments to the Register of the Treasury and one appointment to the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. In addition to his appointments, Bruce was an entrepreneur and also served on Howard University’s Board of Trustees.
Blanche Bruce died at the age of 57 from kidney complications caused by diabetes.
- “Blanche Bruce.” 2020. Encyclopedia.com. January 4, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/polish-history-biographies/blanche-bruce.
- “Blanche Kelso Bruce House.” 2017. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. August 11, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/places/blanche-kelso-bruce-house.htm.
- “BRUCE, Blanche Kelso.” n.d. History, Art & Archives. US House of Representatives. Accessed January 5, 2020. https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/10029.Jones, Robin. 2019.
- “Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841-1898).” BlackPast.org. August 19, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/bruce-blanche-kelso-1841-1898/.
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