From Slavery to Freedom: John Edward Bruce's Childhood and Adolescence

By L, Ralph | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

From Slavery to Freedom: John Edward Bruce's Childhood and Adolescence


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


In March 1897, Charles W. Anderson requested that Levi P. Morton, New York's Republican Governor, appoint John Edward Bruce to a minor political post. Anderson, a respected Black Republican stalwart, had been a member of the New York Republican State Committee for sixteen years and was a primary dispenser of Black political patronage in New York City. If Anderson gave his seal of approval to a Black nominee, white politicians usually fell in line. This appointment, however, was somewhat different, and Morton's aides encouraged him to be cautious.(2)

Bruce was an ambitious forty-one-year-old man, of dark brown complexion, just under six foot tall, with a prominent mustache, penetrating eyes, a confident persona that intimidated his peers, and had a preference for Havana cigars. An established journalist, Bruce was considered by one author to be "the prince of Afro-American correspondents." His articles, well-known in the Black community, caught the attention of white readers as well. In addition, he was active in the Prince Hall Masons, the Afro-American League, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and he was a charter member of the American Negro Academy, a newly formed organization led by the Rev. Alexander Crummell of Washington, D.C. These were notable accomplishments for a former slave with a third-grade education. Bruce had developed his intellectual, political, and social talents through reading, travel, personal contacts, and on-the-job experience.(3)

While Morton's advisors considered Bruce a valuable addition to New York's Black practitioners of Republican politics, they questioned his party loyalty. Would his ambition, independence, and staunch commitment to racial advancement interfere with the Governor's agenda? Bruce had campaigned against accommodation for several years, and he was a member of a small but vocal contingent of articulate Blacks who challenged the leadership of Booker T. Washington. His pen name, "Grit," was a nineteenth-century term that denoted unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. Bruce's ideas, according to the historian Alfred A. Moss, were "considered trenchant and even blunt in their analyses of people and issues, delighting some and outraging others."(4)

Governor Morton eventually appointed Bruce "to represent the interests of the colored citizens" of New York "at a general exposition held in Nashville, Tennessee." The historian Lawrence Reddick contended that Bruce "aroused the people of the Empire State and organized a splendid exhibit...."(5) The Nashville Exposition was nationally recognized celebration of America's one hundred years of constitutional government. Organizational difficulties delayed the event until the late 1870s. Similar to Colored People's Day staged at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, the Nashville event solicited state authorities to sponsor Black delegations. Bruce and his colleagues believed such events could be used to document African American accomplishments and challenge racial stereotypes that underpinned Black inferiority. Nashville's middle-class Black community also had a rich tradition of supporting a diverse collection of Black conventions throughout the post-Reconstruction Era and into the early twentieth century.(6)

Bruce's success with the Nashville Exposition was only one of his accomplishments in 1897. His journalistic career and community activities punctuated an avid interest in African American history. This passion, inspired by Pan-African advocates whom had he met during his youth, dominated Bruce's intellectual life from 1876 to his death.(7) Through these contacts he developed an international network of political and intellectual resources. This association stimulated a thriving discourse among Black thinkers in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States, and, on occasion, Black residents in Europe. George Shepperson, the Scottish scholar, identified the collaboration between Bruce and his colleagues as a "commerce of ideas and politics between the descendants of. …

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