Word that US Rep. Tim Scott will replace Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina means, among other things, that a southern state will be represented by a black senator for the first time in more than 130 years.
The last black senator from the South was Blanche Kelso Bruce, a Republican from Mississippi who served from 1875 to 1881.
Bruce was born a slave in Prince Edward County, Va., in 1841 to a white plantation owner and a house slave. Bruce was unusual in that he was tutored by his master’s son. Also unusual was that Bruce’s father, Pettis Perkinson, legally freed him so he could learn a trade as a printer’s apprentice.
Bruce left Virginia at the beginning of the War Between the States. Rejected for service in the Union Army, Bruce instead taught school and attended Oberlin College for two years.
He then moved to Mississippi where he bought an abandoned cotton plantation and amassed a real estate fortune, according to a 2008 article by Politico.
In addition to being a Mississippi planter, Bruce served as a member of the Mississippi Levee Board – no minor post given the havoc the Mississippi River could wreak with its then-regular flooding – and served as sheriff and tax collector of Bolivar County 1872-1875, according to the Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress.
In February 1875, Bruce was elected by the Mississippi state legislature to the US Senate, where he served from March 4, 1875, to March 3, 1881. In doing so, he became the first black to serve a full term in the Senate.
The odds were stacked against Bruce being re-elected, according to Politico.
“With the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops, Republican control over Mississippi’s political institutions collapsed, dashing Bruce’s re-election chances,” according to the publication. “But Bruce made the most of his single term, advocating for civil rights for blacks, American Indians, Chinese immigrants and former Confederates. It was during a debate on a bill to exclude Chinese immigrants that Bruce presided.”
Interestingly, at the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Bruce briefly presided and received eight votes for vice president, according to Stanley Turkel’s 2005 book, Heroes of the American Reconstruction.
Later, Bruce was appointed Register of the Treasury by President James Garfield. The position meant Bruce became the first black to have his signature represented on US currency, Turkel wrote.
Bruce later served as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia from 1891 to 1893; and again was Register of the Treasury from 1897 until his death in Washington, DC, on March 17, 1898. He was buried in Washington, in Woodlawn Cemetery.