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Published: Saturday, 2/25/2006

History little notes first black U.S. senator


HE WAS the first African-American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate, serving from 1875 to 1881. It would be 85 years later, in 1966, that Edward Brooke's election from Massachusetts would put another African-American in the Senate.

Since America's founding nearly 230 years ago, only five African-Americans have been elected to the Senate, with but one serving today, Barack Obama, a Democrat from Illinois.

After the first African-American senator's one term, he was appointed for a four-year term as Registrar of the Treasury by President James A. Garfield. After a 12-year lapse, he was reappointed to this position. As such, his name appears on U.S. currency issued from May, 1881 to June, 1885, and from December, 1897 to March, 1898.

At the 1880 Republican Party convention which nominated James Garfield for president, he received eight votes for vice president. Thus, he became the first African-American to garner votes to be on a national ticket. He also served briefly as the convention's presiding officer. Eight years later at the 1888 Republican convention which nominated Benjamin Harrison for president, he received 11 votes for vice president.

Yet, despite these singular achievements, Sen. Blanche Kelso Bruce is lost to our history. Indicative of that is the general lack of reference to him in American history textbooks used by high school and college students.

And with the exception of a small number of noteworthy recognitions, including the naming of a Detroit, Mich., multi-campus strict-discipline academy for him, little in our country marks his historical significance.

That Blanche Kelso Bruce began as a slave in Virginia (son of a slave mother and a white father; the youngest of 11 children) makes it even more regrettable that his story and the inspiration to be drawn from it have escaped the attention particularly of young people.

From slavery to the U.S. Senate, Bruce's life is the material of historical fiction if it were not fact. Moving in slavery from Virginia to Mississippi to Missouri, Bruce ultimately escaped and attempted as the Civil War began to enlist in the Northern army. His enlistment turned down (it would only be years later that African-Americans were allowed to fight for the Union), Bruce directed his life toward education and politics.

His accomplishments in both education and politics become even more exceptional when we consider that his formal schooling consisted of simply having been tutored to read and write while in slavery and a period enrolled at Oberlin College, his attendance shortened by a lack of money.

With that background and with obvious high ambition and an understanding of how an African-American could be successful, Bruce went on to found a school in Kansas for former slaves and then established the first school for African-Americans in Missouri. For a short time he also taught school.

Recognizing what a highly ambitious, comparatively well educated African-American could achieve in the post-Civil War Reconstruction, Bruce would establish his political reputation back in Mississippi where he had earlier been a slave.

Bruce first held a series of elected and appointed county and statewide positions, including registrar of voters, superintendent of education, tax assessor, sheriff, tax collector, and sergeant at arms in the Mississippi state Senate.

Through the purchase and development of land, including an abandoned cotton plantation, he became a wealthy landowner, acceptable even to whites who continued to control Mississippi politics and the economy.

His acceptance by whites seemingly arose owing to his education (considerably more than that of Mississippi's African-Americans of the time), his light skin, his land ownership, and, importantly, his dignified, non-threatening, reserved demeanor.

Success in these positions, with growing stature as an African-American political leader, led to the Republican-controlled Mississippi Legislature electing Bruce to the U.S. Senate in 1875. (Until the 27th Constitutional Amendment in 1912, U.S. senators were elected by the respective state legislatures, not directly by the people.)

Senator Bruce's support from Mississippi whites evidently did not extend to James Alcorn, the senior Mississippi senator, who despite the senatorial tradition and courtesy, failed to escort Bruce for his swearing-in ceremony. (Ninety-one years later, Ted Kennedy, the senior Massachusetts senator, would escort his new colleague, Edward Brooke, for his swearing-in before a standing ovation from fellow senators.)

Bruce understood that his position could allow him to advocate for African-Americans and also understood his symbolic value to his race.

Through serving on several important Senate committees and through the use of patronage, he endeavored to assist his constituents, including seeking banking improvements after the failure of the Freedman's Bank, causing the loss of life-savings for many African-Americans.

Senator Bruce fought for improved civil rights and for greater educational opportunities as well as for western land grants for African-Americans. He was a strong proponent of desegregating the U.S. Army and sought an investigation into the apparent harassment of an African-American West Point cadet.

As we celebrate Black History Month, the example set by Sen. Blanche Kelso Bruce should not be lost on any of us, regardless of race.

Gerald Bazer is a retired dean of arts and sciences at Owens Community College.

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