Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and John Edward Bruce: The Relationship of a Militant Black Journalist with the "Father of Civil Rights," and the "Wizard of Tuskegee."

By L, Ralph | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1998 | Go to article overview

Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and John Edward Bruce: The Relationship of a Militant Black Journalist with the "Father of Civil Rights," and the "Wizard of Tuskegee."


L, Ralph, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and John Edward Bruce: The Relationship of a Militant Black Journalist with the "Father of Civil Rights," and the "Wizard of Tuskegee."

During the late nineteenth century, John Edward Bruce (1856-1924) was a leading Black journalist, a prominent Republican activist, and one of African America's foremost self-trained historians. Along with T. Thomas Fortune (1856-1928), Bruce, who also wrote under the pen name "Bruce Grit," was the most respected voice associated with the national Black press during his era. He had a tentative and sometimes volatile relationship with both Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). An aging giant in the struggle to liberate African Americans, Douglass was the generally acknowledged leader of the race until his death in 1895. Ironically, on a hot September afternoon in the same year, Washington's speech at the Atlanta Exposition catapulted him to fame, power, and ultimately a position of enormous influence in African American history and race relations. Bruce corresponded with both men, curried their favor, and challenged their ideas and actions. An examination of his association with these Black leaders provides a better understanding of two difficult areas in Bruce's life. His relationship with Douglass was an extension of a prolonged struggle with the Republican Party, while Washington's influence upon the Black press encouraged Bruce to compromise his editorial views.

How did Bruce first meet Douglass? What was his response to the national debate on Douglass' marriage to Helen Pitts? How did Washington moderate Bruce's editorial opinions? What was Bruce's relationship with the Tuskegee Machine? This article will address these questions and chart the relationship between Bruce and two of the most powerful politicians in the African American political legacy.

Bruce contended that he "knew Douglass from the earliest days in Washington, D.C." Douglass was publishing the New National Era. In 1869 this newspaper and The Colored Citizen, edited by John P. Sampson, were the only two Black newspapers in the District. According to Bruce, Douglass read one of his earlier articles, published under the pen name of the "Rising Sun," and hired him as a correspondent for the New National Era. While working for Douglass' publication, Bruce wrote under the pen name "Caleb Quotem."(2)

The historian Benjamin Quarles has argued that Bruce was a consistent critic of Douglass, but Bruce's personal papers indicate that until 1884 he held the elder statesman in high regard. Two years earlier, Douglass' first wife, Anna Murray, had died of a stroke. Douglass rebounded from this tragedy by throwing himself into his work as the District's Recorder of Deeds. On January 25, 1884, Douglass married his second wife, Helen Pitts, a forty-five year old white clerk who worked in his office. "The marriage caused great strain within Douglass' family," according to his biographer William S. McFeely, and shocked many of his Black colleagues. McFeely wrote:

...the young Douglasses...[saw] the idea of marriage...to someone who was not black, [as an] anathema to them. They had always known the importance to their father of his many close white friends, but it was only with his marriage that he seemed formally to have repudiated his family -- his children, their mother, and their mother's people -- all black people. In this feeling the Douglass children were joined by many black Americans, who felt betrayed by a leader they had so long admired.(3)

Surprised by Douglass' new marriage, Bruce publicly articulated some of the frustration shared by his colleagues and friends. In an editorial entitled, "The Mistake of His Life," published in the Grit, Bruce declared: "We are opposed to colored men marrying second-rate white women...We do not believe that it adds anything to the character or good sense of either of the two races to intermarry. …

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