First Black Dynasty

Posted: May 19, 2014 in Reads

“AMERICA’S FIRST BLACK DYNASTY”

Buried in history, this account of a black family that includes “a United States senator; a bank president; [and] a Washington socialite” is a rags to riches to welfare tale . Slave-born Blanche K. Bruce (1841–1898) was the first African-American to serve a full term in the United State Senate (1874–1880). Born a slave in 1841, Bruce became a local Mississippi sheriff, developed a political power base, amassed a real-estate fortune, and became the first black to serve a full Senate term.  He also distanced himself from other African-Americans (with the exception of his family and other prominant blacks) throughout his entire life.

Having obtained wealth in addition to political clout in Mississippi, he acquired elite class status through his marriage to Josephine Willson, daughter of a wealthy dentist whose freeborn roots extended back to the late 18th century. In 1878, the Times ran its first wedding announcement for a black couple: Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, who entered the Senate in the fading days of Reconstruction (many newspapers ignored his election, assuming that he would never be seated), and Josephine Willson, a daughter of the light-skinned black élite. The Bruces established America’s first black dynasty.

During Reconstruction, the Bruce family entertained lavishly in their two Washington town houses and acquired an 800-acre plantation, homes in four states, and a fortune that allowed their son and grandchildren to attend Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, beginning in 1896.

The Senator’s legacy would continue with his son, Roscoe, who became both a protégé of Booker T. Washington and a superintendent of Washington, D.C.’s segregated schools. When the family moved to New York in the 1920s and formed an alliance with John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Bruce’s became an enviable force in Harlem society. Their public battle to get their grandson admitted into Harvard University’s segregated dormitories elicited the support of people like W. E. B. Du Bois and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and broke brave new ground for blacks of their day.

By befriending President Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and a cadre of liberal black and white Republicans, Bruce spent six years in the U.S. Senate, 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.

The second generation of Bruce’s 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. Sadly, after graduation, no New York law firm would hire

Clara Bruce because of her race despite the fact she graduated at the top of her class.

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 who passed for white. In the end, the Bruce dynasty’s wealth and stature would disappear when the Senator’s grandson (Roscoe, Sr.) landed in prison following a sensational trial. He 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. 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, most descendants of Sen. Bruce live as white people.

istance. 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, most descendants of Sen. Bruce live as white people.

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