Saturday, August 15, 2009

Blanche Kelso Bruce: A Black Republican Before His Time

by Cleo Brown

Blanche Kelso Bruce, who was the first African-American to sit for a full-term as a Senator in the United States Congress. He was also the first African-American to preside over Congress. He died tragically at the age of fifty-seven years old after having been accused of stealing money from The United States’ Treasury. The accusation was an unsettling one for Bruce who was usually used by the society in which he lived as an example to be admired. It is believed, therefore, that the accusation brought on an attack of asthma which caused a heart attack from which Bruce did not recover.

Born on March 1st, 1841 in Farmville, Virginia near Prince Edward County, Bruce was born a slave. His mother, named Polly Bruce, was a house slave who became impregnated by her Caucasian owner named Pettis Perkinson. Perkinson was a Virginia Plantation Owner. Although it was not customary for plantation owners to become involved in the lives of their children born to slave mistresses, Perkinson did educate Blanche Kelso using his son’s tutor to do so. He also permitted Blanche to inter-act with his Caucasion son when they were children. Perkinson also took Blanche on trips traveling from Virginia to Mississippi and Missouri where Blanche worked a variety of odd jobs from that of field hand to factory employee. Eventually, his father freed him.

At the age of twenty, Blanche Kelso Bruce tried to enlist in the Union Army. This was when The Civil War began. There were, however, no regiments for African-Americans in 1861. Consequently, his application was declined. Blanche Bruce had, earlier, in 1850 moved to Missouri where he became a Printer’s Apprentice. Now, however, he moved to Ohio where he became a Teacher and where he also attended Oberlin College for two years. By 1864, Bruce had returned to Missouri where he began a school for African-Americans in Hannibal, Missouri.

Bruce had worked, for a brief period of time in 1850, as a Porter on a steamboat on The Mississippi River. Consequently, during the Reconstruction Era, he returned to Mississippi where he became wealthy as a Plantation Owner and as a Cotton Planter. He eventually turned to politics where, representing the Republican Party, he secured a number of positions as a Politician. He served as: “Supervisor of Elections, Tax Assessor, Sheriff, Superintendent of Education and Sergeant at Arms of the State Senate.” He married college educated Josephine Beal Wilson on June 24th, 1878. Their only child, named Roscoe Conkling Bruce, was born in 1879. Roscoe was named after New York Senator Roscoe Conkling who walked down the aisle of the senate chamber with Bruce after Mississippi Senator James Alcorn refused to walk with Bruce when he was to take his oath of office. Bruce sat in the Senate from March 4th, 1875 to March 3rd, 1881. He had been proceeded as an African -American Senator by Hiram Revels, also from Mississippi. Revels, however, did not serve a full-term but did work the remaining months of someone else’s term in office.

Blanche Kelso Bruce was appointed “Register of the Treasury by President James Garfield in 1881; recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia in 1891-1893; and Register of the Treasury again from 1897 until his death in Washington, D. C. on March 17th, 1898.”(Biographical Directory of the United States Congress). According to the personal papers of Civil Right’s Activist Ida B. Wells, Blanche Kelso Bruce, whom Wells liked a great deal, was an opportunist who was always searching for a way into main-stream society; but who was accused of stealing money from The Federal Treasury. Bruce denied the charges. Maintains Wells, a shot was heard to ring out from his study before his “so-called heart attack!” Evidently, Bruce had been cleaning his pistol (he had been a gun collector) when he experienced his fatal heart attack after a serious bout with asthma. The gun, unfortunately, went off. Bruce, however, was eventually exonerated of all of the charges in the theft. According to Wikipedia, Blanche Kelso Bruce is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Washington D.C.

Cleo E. Brown is a moderate Republican an educator on staff in New York City, New York. She is also a free lance writer and an Editor at HHR Blog. She holds a Master’s Degree in Contemporary African-American History from The University of California at Davis and has done work on a Ph.D. in Education at The University of San Francisco in San Francisco, California.

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