By Deardra Shuler
Author, attorney, educator and commentator on the politics of race and class in America, Lawrence Otis Graham has recognized the life of Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce and his progenitors, in his current book The Senator and The Socialite. Mr. Graham felt compelled to write the book because history rarely speaks of Blanche Kelso Bruce, who was the first black senator to serve a full Senate term in the 1800s. Though most African Americans are Democrats today, during the Reconstruction period, most Blacks were Republicans. Blacks only bolted the Republican Party during the reign of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who chased many racists out of the Democratic Party; interesting, given his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, is said to have held many racist viewpoints.
An author of 14 books, Mr. Graham is most noted for his controversial bestseller “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class” which documents the lives of wealthy African Americans. He exposed racism in a white Connecticut Social Club via his book “Member of the Club.” As a result of this book, many exclusively white social clubs opened their doors to Jews, minorities and women. Graham is married to Pamela Thomas-Graham, an author and Phi Beta Kappa, Economics magna cum laude graduate of Harvard-Radcliffe College.
“The Senator and the Socialite” offers a wealth of knowledge about the life of Senator Bruce and his socialite wife Josephine Wilson, the daughter of a freed wealthy black Philadelphia doctor. Josephine was an extremely intelligent woman who understood the importance of social and political networking. She raised funds for Howard University and was involved with an organization known today as the National Congress of Black Women” explained Graham.
“Together the ambitious Republican power couple and property owners moved through the Washington social circuit carving out historic firsts. Born a slave in Mississippi in 1841, Bruce rose to the United States Senate in 1874. He worked under 4 presidents (Garfield, Harrison, McKinley and Arthur), befriended Booker T. Washington, President Ulysses S. Grant and served as best man at the wedding of abolitionist Frederick Douglas to white feminist and newspaper editor, Helen Pitts; a marriage that strained Mr. Douglas’s relationship with both blacks and whites alike” explained Lawrence.
Amazing for the time period, Bruce won a position as Registrar of the US Treasury Department in 1881 and was the first black man to have his signature on currency. As Registrar, Bruce was in charge of the printing of money, minting of coins, and overseeing loans, etc. Retiring from office, once the ignorant and racist president, Grover Cleveland, took office, Bruce and Josephine moved to New York where they were appointed by Rockefeller to run the Dunbar Apartments in Harlem.
“Very little of history has reminded us of the great accomplishments of black people,” stated Professor Lawrence. “Many Southerners were embarrassed by what happened after Reconstruction when Blacks rose to political office for a short time, and were then chased out of politics by the KKK and other hate groups. It’s an embarrassing blemish on American history but it’s an important history African Americans should know. That is why many whites don’t want to talk about slavery or reparations because they fear it will create resentments. At one time, African Americans reached great political height and some whites don’t want to admit Blacks deserve to reach the same accomplishments and political heights today. Even now, Blacks haven’t moved far politically. There was only one black senator 132 years ago and there is still only one black senator today” explained the researcher of America’s class system.
A graduate of both Harvard and Princeton Law School, Graham grew up within an upper black social class which provided him with many economic advantages and social contacts. These privileges put him in the position to document the world of the black elite. “I like to discuss issues about where race and class collide” claimed Graham. “Neither black nor white Americans know the true history of the black upper class. During slavery, some blacks were eventually able to buy their freedom. Some who were children of slave owners were left inheritances by their white fathers. In fact, Josephine’s grandfather was a white man. Some were fair enough to cross color lines so they could forge free and affluent lives for themselves outside the rigors of slavery and racism. In fact, some of the ancestors of these passing slaves live as white Americans to this day. Due to Segregation, African Americans were barred from many establishments so they started their own banks, funeral homes, insurance firms and newspapers, etc., businesses that African Americans shopped at and patronized” explained the successful writer. “Due to Segregation affluent blacks lived blocks from poorer blacks. In Harlem, the wealthy lived at Lenox Terrace, The Riverton, and on Strivers Row only moving when drugs infiltrated the community” stated Graham. “Blacks such as the affluent Syphax family for instance, (close friends of the Bruce family) inherited property from Whites in their family. This acreage later purchased by the US government is now the famed National Arlington Cemetery, burial ground for many of our nation’s war heroes. It was monies from many of the black upper class that financed much of the NAACP and Civil Rights Movement” shared the successful lawyer and author.
Mr. Graham’s campaign to honor Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce with a special commemorative stamp, prompted Senator Trent Lott (R- MS) to sponsor a resolution urging the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp honoring Bruce as the first African American to serve a full term in the United States Senate. See: www.SenatorBruce.org
For info on Lawrence Otis Graham see: www.lawrenceotisgraham.com