Monday, March 1, 2021

Photo of the Day: A Black Reconstruction Senator’s Residence in Washington, DC

The striking property here—2010 R Street, Northwest—might look much like any other in DC’s elegant Dupont Circle neighborhood. But the marker outside indicates another story.

When I passed by while on vacation in November 2015, I never could have anticipated that the life and times of Blanche Kelso Bruce—born on this date in 1841—might possess even more relevance now than it did when I read the inscription explaining why his home had been selected as part of the African American Heritage Trail in our nation’s capital.

Bruce was one of the most striking figures in the Reconstruction Era, the post-Civil War period when freedmen sought greater economic opportunities and achieved fleeting political equality with whites. In an era of polarization, with racism and reaction ever-present threats to his gains and those of the base that propelled him to prominence, he was obliged to step carefully through multiple political minefields.

This past week, I saw a meme on Facebook questioning the need for Black History Month. The remarkable rise of Bruce—the second African American to serve in the U. S. Senate and the first to be elected to a full term—and his equally astonishing fall back into relative obscurity demonstrate that there might be more need for this collective commemoration than many Americans would care to admit.

A runaway slave from Virginia, fathered by his white master, Bruce made his way west of the Mississippi, where during the Civil War he taught black children in Kansas and Missouri. After the conflict he worked as a steamboat porter out of St. Louis, then moved down to Mississippi in hopes of finding more opportunity. His business sense proved acute, as he turned an abandoned cotton plantation into a thriving property over the next decade.

Large, imposing, and gifted with a strong voice, Bruce possessed a charisma that attracted the attention of the Republican Party. Soon he was accumulating political IOUs along with his real estate fortune, holding simultaneous Bolivar County offices as sheriff, tax collector and superintendent of education. With the help of Black Republicans and Gov. Adelbert Ames, Bruce was selected by the state legislature to serve a term in the U.S. Senate.

With both blacks and whites suffering in the economic collapse brought on by the Civil War, Bruce sought to work in the interests of both groups and forge a biracial electoral coalition. For whites, he advocated for internal improvements and financial incentives, including federal funding to control flooding and the creation of a channel and levee system for parts of the Mississippi’s edge. For blacks, he ardently promoted black servicemen, including pressing for integration of the armed forces.

But as an “aristocrat of color,” Bruce lost some favor with his African American base, and whites were not generally inclined toward him to begin with, even though even the likes of fellow Mississippian Lucius Q. C. Lamar, a former secessionist, acknowledged his intelligence and moderation. With Democratic forces gathering strength back at home in an attempt to suppress the African American vote, Bruce didn’t even try for a second term, stepping down in March 1881.

After several years of continuing participation in Mississippi politics, Bruce returned to the nation’s capital. serving as register of the U.S. Treasury and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. He and wife Josephine—the first black teacher in the Cleveland public schools and the daughter of a prominent mixed-race dentist before she wed the Senator—remained fixtures on the local social scene, living at their R Street property from 1890 to 1898.

Bruce’s career is a reminder of how far all Americans can rise when they are presented with adequate opportunities to match their own drive and ambition. It is also evidence of how those gains may be lost when powerfully entrenched forces mobilize to exploit fears of an uncertain new political and social environment.

No comments: