The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty by Lawrence Otis Graham

After the Civil War in the 1860’s, the United States government began the era of Reconstruction ending the Confederate secession and slavery, making the newly freed slaves citizens with civil rights guaranteed by three new Constitutional amendments.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, the Fourteenth Amendment addressed citizenship rights and equal protection of all persons in 1868, and the Fifteenth Amendment prohibits discrimination in voting rights of citizens on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” in 1870. But with the enactment of State and Federal Jim Crow laws in the 1880’s, coupled with Supreme Court decisions (Slaughter-House Cases 1873, Plessy v. Ferguson 1896), rapidly threw civil-rights for all people of color into chaos.

As the Reconstruction Era was short-lived, as some white citizens were appalled at the new freedom (and power) given to African Americans, and their efforts circumvented progress in civil-rights and the ultimate demise of the Reconstruction Era in 1877.

The Republican party (the liberal party of Abraham Lincoln,) favored ending slavery and covering civil-rights to all people. Democrats, who were conservatives, and many were slave-owners, were opposed to civil-rights’ efforts.

Senator Blanche Bruce

In Graham’s 2006 book, The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty, explores the life of Blanche Bruce, who became the first African-American to serve a full-term Senate seat from Mississippi. Bruce was born a slave in Farmville, Virginia in 1841 to his father Pettus Perkinson, the white owner of the plantation, where his mother Polly was enslaved.

Senator Blanche Bruce from Mississippi

Bruce spent six years in the U.S. Senate (1875-1881), 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.

U.S. Treasury $100 Bill with Blanche Bruce’s signature

Bruce had acquired an 800-acre plantation, homes in four states, and a fortune that allowed their only son, Roscoe, to attend Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, beginning in 1896.

His accumulated wealth transferred to his family after he died in 1898. His wife Josephine became caretaker their farms in Mississippi. Living in Washington D.C., she had to rely on people in Mississippi to support their properties. As Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan gained momentum, these white caretakers essentially pilfered Josephine much of her savings, and the properties were sold at a mere fraction of what they were worth. Their only son was nowhere to be found to lend a hand to his mother.

Roscoe Conkling Bruce

As anti-immigration, and anti-black baked into the American consciousness during the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, Roscoe adopted the approach of Booker T. Washington, who propelled the notion of blacks to focus on learning trades, and dismiss efforts to learn about the humanities, language and arts in school. Roscoe, as well as his wife Clara, worked for Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama after he graduated from Harvard in 1902. Roscoe Bruce, essentially squandered the family wealth during his lifetime.

Roscoe Conkling Bruce

Clara Bruce was educated at Howard University (1900 – 1901), Radcliffe College (1901 – 1903), and Boston University Law School (1923 – 1926). Clara passed the Massachusetts State Bar Examination, the second African American woman to do so. She was undergraduate Editor of the Boston Law Review (1925 – 1926). 

Many elite African-Americans chose to alter their names to appear more white, in efforts to distance themselves from being black. Descendants of the Bruce family have merged into the shadows since that time. In fact, during a 2002 ceremony at the U.S. Capital Building in Washington D.C., to unveil the portrait of Bruce, only one member of the family appeared.

W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B DuBois, born in Great Barrington MA, and was the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard. He was against Washington’s philosophy of suppressing blacks to white-political rule. DuBois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation for all African-Americans. He was one of the founder’s of the NAACP in 1909. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was an ardent peace activist.

W.E.B. DuBois

End of the 20th Century

Graham’s book offers a unique insight into the politics and social injustice during this time. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan and White Nationalism, accompanied with the installation of monuments to confederate war criminals in the early 1900s, and the segregation of blacks from whites from Universities, restaurants, hotels and playgrounds, culminated into expanded powers to suppress African-Americans from equal standing with whites.

Three landmark events in the 20th century fundamentally ended Jim Crow-era laws. The Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enabled the realization of benefits from the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. August 28, 1963

21st Century

Lawrence Otis Graham – Interview from 2014

Entering the 21st century, the United States is undergoing a major transformation population shift in demographics. By 2050, whites will no longer be the majority of the populace. Since the short-lived period of Reconstruction, African-Americans and other minorities will be able to regain power in government, and implement civil-right solutions to address current problems of desegregation, abusive judicial practices, racism, voting rights, and other methods imposed onto them by longstanding Jim Crow laws and beliefs.

And another group who have been suppressed in our country’s history, women, are poised to gain even more seats in Congress, enough to help implement important civil-rights’ causes for our country’s future. Like Clara Bruce from 100 years ago, women are poised to garner leadership positions in our American culture, and change society for the better.

Senator Blanche Bruce paved the way for African-Americans as a beacon of light to achieve success in business and politics, albeit it took well over a century to do so.

“It’s not just an African-American story, but an American story that bridges so much of our history from the Civil War and Reconstruction to Modern Times that brings together so many great people that he and his family brought together.” – Lawrence Otis Graham

Published
Categorized as History

By Brian J. Podesta

Administrator and writer for WritingReal, a place for stories about people and places. Included are my musical projects and my book reviews.

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