Recalling the South’s last black senator

blanche bruce

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.


16 thoughts on “Recalling the South’s last black senator

  1. What an incredible amount of time between black senators… and that he would be the seventh in total seems unreal.
    The information on Mr. Bruce is interesting!

  2. What an interesting life he had. I would be interested to know the story of his mother and Pettis Perkinson too.
    I know freeing slaves wasn’t unheard of, but to educate and free your own child and for him to go on and be such a success couldn’t have been a regular event could it?

    • No, I don’t recall hearing too many stories like that of Sen. Bruce. Of course, with so few slaves having received any kind of education there were few individuals with Bruce’s background to begin with.

      • There is much to be admired in this story, And do recall that it was not the 1900s or 2000s, and please remember that there were so few white people as well who also only received the education their relatives and neighbors might be able to provide at home. They too were very busy working in the fields or the swamps, or fighting the invaders on their lands. Oh Well the winners get the spoils and this fellow sided with the winners even tho he had received preferential treatment by the losers. The losers were very busy working very hard to keep the faith and hope alive so they could build their war torn country back.

        So, Walk in everybody’s shoes at that time, because present-ism is just so wrong. Thanks to yankeeland we have lots of places and monies spent on education now, how is that working out?

      • I don’t know that he “sided with the winners.” I wouldn’t expect a freed slave to take up arms for the Confederacy. Without the lure of freedom in exchange for service, an offer which wasn’t on the table, why would a slave or recently enslaved individual risk his life. Some may have been willing to serve their masters or their masters’ sons as cooks or servants out of a sense of obligation or even some sort of kinship that we today have trouble fathoming, but it’s illogical to think that blacks en masse would join the side which enslaved the vast majority of the membes of their race in the US.

        And no doubt, everyone back then was a whole lot poorer and life was a whole lot more difficult. One of the reasons that we, as a society, are better off and live longer, healthier lives is education.

  3. He sided with the winners based on Quote: “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.”

    Tags: Mississippi is a long way from Virginia; Abandoned (WHY) Cotton Plantation; Fortune in Real Estate (HOW-funds came from?). Who were the power brokers? Carpetbaggers come to mind.

    When you really perceive the gut reality of the horrors of Lincoln’s War, and the after years cruelty of Reconstruction up to and even after WWII, the causes of distrust you will then understand that 130 years is really a short time frame for those who lived it. The war its self is not that many generations ago, and at the beginning of the War 1860, there were 500,000 FREE ex-slaves with property and a livelihood. The essense of the future for all the slaves. By the time the invaders and the take over had been completed there was not much left for those who struggled through it. 4 MILLION slaves were freed with no job, no food, no shelter, many died, white and black, from disease, malnutrition, and hard scrabble,

    • I’ll grant you that the US government did no one any favors by simply turning slaves loose with nothing in the way of provisions, especially after devastating the South and its economy.

      But life was hardly rosy for most free blacks in the South prior to the war, either. There were often severe restrictions on free blacks, including prohibitions on their ability to move from state to state. At least one state passed a law ordering law enforcement to force freed blacks from its borders. Hardly a happy environment.

      I personally believe slavery could have been ended without the war and the deaths of 700,000 men, but don’t try and feed me the b.s. that life was wine and roses for enslaved blacks.

      • Please – no where did I say it was wine and roses, but I believe I can back this up: While it may have been plain ole vanilla for MOST of them, and there were from time to time some incidents of cruelty in this system by some unscrupulous master, however, it was a system of labor that gave them a stable secure life with plenty of food, good shelter, medical, a family, a job and a skill. and low crime. There were 4 million in 1860 and in some places they were even the majority population, and were masters or owners themselves. Eeek that really does sound better than today’s life in the NE ghettos. And well gee whiz, the government has taken over the cradle to grave entitlements, only they do no work to receive it, instead well now a days, it comes from your work, and you have no say so at all.

        According to most analysis, by 1860 more slaves would have been free than the 500,000, but for FEAR from the white population. The master/owners were compelled by the community to ensure safety. Some of the uprisings like, one in SC and one in Louisiana caused them to fear they would be murdered in their beds like Haiti. Not one white person was spared in that uprising. Babies thrown against trees, just horrible. Santo Domingo also had uprising resulting in death to many, And the NE was sending pamphlets telling the slaves to rise up and kill the white people. John Brown had 6 NE financial backers in his scheme to even assassinate the Governor of Virginia, and these backers also backed Lincoln.

        The part about moving from state to state or territory was not a good thing and one of the reasons the South left the Union. If they couldn’t go anywhere in the US with their property ???? (yea slaves) then they weren’t free. I remember reading that Lincoln promised the Ohio governor if he would stick with him in this war, that he would ensure the ex-slaves, blacks, were bottled up in the South. Actually they were until WWII, money was too scare in the South for anyone to go anywhere, and buy much so their skills, especially the artisans of New Orleans, Charleston were lost and not passed down. This may be in the book Free but Not Equal by a black Chicago author.

        There were enough reasons for the South to leave the compact of States and form a government more in their best interest. The powers that be just wouldn’t let them go in peace, and forced them into a union with gun and bayonet.

        So all this hard scrabble, abandoned plantations, real estate money came from where? Follow the money.

  4. Pingback: Canister! « Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

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