The Life and Times of Blanche K. Bruce

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The Life and Times of Blanche K. Bruce The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty By Lawrence Otis Graham (HarperCollins, $26.95)

"Dynasty" conjures images of the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers and the Kcnnedys. Great American family dynasties transfer power from generation to generation: they live their successes, their travails and their tragedies in the public eye. It may be a stretch to call Blanche K. Bruce and three generations of his descendents a dynasty in terms of their power and influence, but their story lacks nothing for drama.

Lawrence Otis Graham, the author of Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class, continues to explore his fascination with the lives of well-todo Black Americans in The Socialite and the Senator: The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty.

Blanche Kelso Bruce was the founder of the Bruce legacy. He was born in 1841, in slavery, a fact that embarrassed him for the rest of his life. He educated himself while still in bondage in Missouri, fled to Kansas and after the Civil War made a shrewd decision to move to Mississippi.

During Reconstruction, while federal troops occupied the South, Mississippi - given the large number of Black voters - was a state where Blacks wielded considerable political power. Bruce quickly ascended the ranks of the Republican Party. Eventually, Bruce was elected county tax assessor, then sheriff, then alderman and in 1874, at age 32, he became the first Black man elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate.

The "socialite" was Josephine Willson, the beautiful daughter of an elite, light-skinned Philadelphia family. The senator and the socialite married in 1878. "The contrast between them as regards color was very marked, she being a pale brunette [who could] readily be taken for a white woman," noted a typical New York paper.

Bruce's career in the Senate floundered as the winds shifted in the politics of Reconstruction. After federal troops were withdrawn, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Black voters away from the polls. Bruce spent his Senate term passively promoting progressive legislation, while his already tenuous power base eroded. The rise of the KKK turned Mississippi into the most segregated and repressed state in the Union. By the time his six-year term ended, Bruce was afraid to return there for fear of his life.

What makes The Senator and the Socialite a remarkable book - and it is such a remarkable book that I would not be surprised to see Graham nominated for a Pulitzer prize in history - is how the Bruce family's particular legacy exposes the grotesque scars of race and class in America. …