Rise and Fall of the House of Bruce

Blanche K. Bruce (senator from Mississippi, 1875-1881) and his wife, Josephine
Blanche K. Bruce (senator from Mississippi, 1875-1881) and his wife, Josephine (From The Book Jacket)
Reviewed by Eric Foner
Sunday, July 2, 2006


The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty

By Lawrence Otis Graham

HarperCollins. 455 pp. $27.95

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. ?

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. His most recent book is "Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction."

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