This is the true story of America's first black dynasty. The years after the Civil War represented an astonishing moment of opportunity for African-Americans. The rush to build a racially democratic society from the ruins of slavery is never more evident than in the personal history of Blanche Kelso Bruce and his heirs.
Born a slave in 1841, Bruce became a local Mississippi sheriff, developed a growing Republican power base, amassed a real-estate fortune, and became the first black to serve a full Senate term. He married Josephine Willson, the daughter of a wealthy black Philadelphia doctor. Together they broke racial barriers as a socialite couple in 1880s Washington, D.C.
By befriending President Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and a cadre of liberal black and white Republicans, Bruce spent six years in the U.S. Senate, then gained appointments under four presidents (Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, and McKinley), culminating with a top Treasury post, which placed his name on all U.S. currency.
During Reconstruction, the Bruce family entertained lavishly in their two Washington town houses and acquired an 800-acre plantation, homes in four states, and a fortune that allowed their son and grandchildren to attend Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, beginning in 1896.
The Senator's legacy would continue with his son, Roscoe, who became both a protégé of Booker T. Washington and a superintendent of Washington, D.C.'s segregated schools. When the family moved to New York in the 1920s and formed an alliance with John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Bruces became an enviable force in Harlem society. Their public battle to get their grandson admitted into Harvard University's segregated dormitories elicited the support of people like W. E. B. Du Bois and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and broke brave new ground for blacks of their day.
But in the end, the Bruce dynasty's wealth and stature would disappear when the Senator's grandson landed in prison following a sensational trial and his Radcliffe-educated granddaughter married a black Hollywood actor who passed for white.
By drawing on Senate records, historic documents, and the personal letters of Senator Bruce, Josephine, their colleagues, friends, children, and grandchildren, author Lawrence Otis Graham weaves a riveting social history that spans 120 years. From Mississippi to Washington, D.C., to New York, The Senator and the Socialite provides a fascinating look into the history of race and class in America.
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The author of fourteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Our Kind of People, and a contributing editor for Reader's Digest, Lawrence Otis Graham's work has also appeared in the New York Times, Essence, and The Best American Essays. He lives with his wife in Manhattan and Chappaqua, New York.From The Washington Post:
It is a revealing commentary on the history of American democracy that, of the 1,885 men and women who have served in the U.S. Senate since the founding of the republic, only five have been black. Remarkably, the first two were elected from Mississippi during the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War. Hiram Revels served for a few weeks in 1870 and then returned to relative obscurity. Blanche K. Bruce, who held his seat from 1875 to 1881, amassed a small fortune and founded what Lawrence Otis Graham calls "America's first true black dynasty."
In this flawed but fascinating study, Graham, a black attorney and author of Our Kind of People, a bestseller about the black upper class, tells the story of three generations of the Bruce family. It is a poignant tale of struggle, accomplishment and weakness -- and an illuminating account of American racism.
Graham's cast of characters begins with Bruce and his wife, Josephine, the senator and the socialite of the book's title. Born a slave in Virginia in 1841, the son of his owner, Bruce escaped during the Civil War, studied at Oberlin College and made his way to Mississippi, where he rose quickly in politics and purchased a plantation in 1874. His beautiful, light-skinned wife, whom he married in 1878, came from the North's tiny black upper class. After his Senate term expired, Bruce remained in Washington, D.C., where he held lucrative patronage posts, acquired a large townhouse and summer home, and presided over black high society.
The second generation of Bruces enjoyed privileged lives far removed from those of most Americans, white or black. Their only child, Roscoe, attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, worked for a time as head of academic education at the Tuskegee Institute, then served as superintendent of black schools in Washington and manager of the Dunbar Apartments, a Harlem housing complex built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. His talented wife, Clara, attended Radcliffe and Boston University Law School, where she became the first woman anywhere to edit a law review. The third generation, also named Roscoe and Clara, followed in their parents' footsteps to Harvard and Radcliffe.
Graham does not shy away from describing the costs of these accomplishments, among them the Bruces' complete dissociation from most of black America. On the Bruce plantation in Mississippi, black sharecroppers lived in "flimsy wooden shacks" and labored in the same oppressive conditions as on white-owned estates. Equally telling, Roscoe Bruce Sr. found the exuberant mode of worship practiced by lower-class Tuskegee students "disgusting."
That Roscoe Bruce worked at Tuskegee is not coincidental, for the family shared its founder Booker T. Washington's philosophy of accommodation, as well as his reliance on connections with wealthy white patrons. Blanche Bruce said little in the Senate as white violence stripped his people of their rights. Indeed, Graham writes, the senator had "an almost single-minded obsession for maintaining favor with powerful whites." While attending Harvard, his son spied for Washington on Boston's "anti-Bookerite" black radicals. Even though he had received an elite academic education, Roscoe Bruce tried to introduce Washington's philosophy of industrial training in the District of Columbia's black schools, causing an uproar among black parents proud of their children's educational attainments. When a scandal erupted in 1919 because Bruce allowed a white man to take nude photographs of black high school students, allegedly as part of a study of physical differences between the races, he was forced to resign.
Only when it came to their own family did the Bruces turn militant. In 1923, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell barred the college's six black freshmen, including Roscoe Jr., from living in freshman dormitories. Roscoe Sr. organized a national campaign that forced Lowell to rescind his order.
An indefatigable researcher in primary sources, Graham sometimes seems unaware of current scholarship. The opening chapters present a confusing picture of Reconstruction politics because Graham uses the word "liberal" in its modern sense of racial egalitarianism rather than its 19th-century meaning of belief in limited government and laissez-faire economics. Contrary to his account, those who called themselves liberal Republicans opposed Reconstruction.
Nonetheless, The Senator and the Socialite offers a compelling portrait of the Bruce family's rise, dynamics and downfall. In 1936, Roscoe Sr. lost his job when Rockefeller sold the Dunbar Apartments. His children lacked the drive and self-discipline of their forebears. The younger Clara failed to complete her studies at Radcliffe and eloped with a black actor. Roscoe Jr. embezzled money from an apartment complex he managed in New Jersey and then arranged a phony burglary to explain the absence of funds. He served 18 months in prison. The legal costs bankrupted the family.
Problems in the third generation of privileged families are standard grist for gossip columnists. But the black elite faced greater obstacles to recovery and had fewer resources and connections to fall back on than their white counterparts. No New York law firm would hire a black female attorney such as Clara Bruce. In their hour of need, the elite whites the Bruces had cultivated for decades abandoned them, refusing repeated requests for assistance. Roscoe Sr. and his wife were reduced to living for a time on welfare. Many of their relatives, including the younger Clara and her actor husband, avoided racism by passing for white. Today, Graham reports, most descendants of Sen. Bruce live as white persons -- an ironic but in some ways understandable end to a black dynasty to which Jim Crow America never truly offered a secure place.
Reviewed by Eric Foner
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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