A Pioneering Black Senator on Capitol Hill

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Lawrence Otis Graham talks about The Senator and the Socialite, his new biography of Blanche Bruce, the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. Bruce and his wife Josephine lived and socialized in Washington, D.C., during the last decades of the 19th century.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

As registrar of the United States Treasury, Blanche Bruce was the first African-American to see his signature on U.S. currency. Bruce was also the first black to serve a full term in the United States Senate.

His life was unprecedented for a black man, and his family lived a highly privileged life for decades. But the story of the Bruce dynasty ends sadly. Lawrence Otis Graham has written a new book about Bruce and his wife, Josephine, called, The Senator and The Socialite.

Mr. LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM (Author, "The Senator and The Socialite"): Senator Blanche Bruce was born a slave in 1841 and had an incredible history because he arrived in Mississippi. He started off as being a local sheriff. He was embraced by the Republican Party at the beginning of reconstruction. And he quickly started to amass property in rental properties - ended up buying a plantation.

And by 1874 he was elected to the Senate. And what really changed things for him was when he married Josephine Bruce, who is the socialite in the title, The Senator and the Socialite, because her family had the connections, the polish, the sophistication, and the additional wealth to help bankroll his political career.

And they became a socialite couple in the 1880s. This black couple in 1880s of Washington had two townhouses, fabulous townhouses, on Dupont Circle, and ended up sending their son to Exeter and Harvard. And he straddled a line, an uncomfortable line, unfortunately, being the only black senator in Washington, and also, but not fully being accepted by whites either. So some blacks felt that he was too close to whites, but many whites felt, well, because he had been a slave and was a black was also not welcome in many of the segregated locations and locales and environments in Washington.

GORDON: How calculating of a man was he? We should note that in his marriage he understood what the union between the two would bring him socially and economically.

Mr. GRAHAM: He was a very sophisticated when it came to - and calculating when it came to, not just his political activities and the bills and legislation that he was going to support, but also socially how he was going to move ahead in Washington and in government. Bruce was very sophisticated about understanding that Republicans needed the black vote. And he also understood that his wife, Josephine, because she was held in high esteem and her grandfather had been a cofounder of a bank in Georgia, that she would have the connections that were going to help move him ahead, both socially and politically.

GORDON: They moved in some mighty tall cotton, if you will, when you talk about the people that they dealt with. You mentioned President Grant, Booker T. Washington, McKinley, the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers, the list goes on and on. So he was smart enough to keep himself in that kind of company.

Mr. GRAHAM: Right, he was very, very wise because he understood that it was not just having the support of the Mississippi politicians and also the Mississippi voters, it was also important for him to have the support and influence of powerful people like Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington, and then, ultimately, the powerful whites in New York and in Washington and back in Mississippi because they were the ones that were going to help finance his career. And even after he was in the Senate, he was going to ultimately try to stay in Washington through appointments through four other presidents.

GORDON: Here's another interesting note that the book brings up. Not only amassing power and becoming a senator, but he was appointed to a top post in the Treasury and you would actually be able to see his name on some U.S. currency.

Mr. GRAHAM: Absolutely. He was the very first African American to have his signature on U.S. currency because he was appointed, first by President Garfield, and then by President Arthur, as register of the U.S. Treasury. And it became a very controversial issue because when they gave him the appointment, it did not occur to a lot of people in Congress that that would put his signature on all this U.S. money.

But he was ultimately even re-appointed to that for a - six years later by President McKinley. So he served under four presidents, which gave him incredible power and incredible standing in the Washington community. Even after many of the other blacks who had been in reconstruction positions had left office, he was still there.

GORDON: It's great that you bring a man like this to light for African Americans. Often we don't hear about someone with this kind of power and prestige, back then. Why do you think that has been the case?

Mr. GRAHAM: I look at today's U.S. Senate and I see one African-American senator, and 132 years ago, in 1874, there was one black senator, Senator Bruce. So really nothing has changed. And one of the reasons why people don't know his story is that most of America is very threatened by the concept of a black elected official on a national stage.

For example, I've been leading a campaign to try to get the United States Postal Service to create a stamp honoring Senator Bruce. In 159 years there has never been a black elected official on a U.S. stamp. There are civil rights leaders, there are lots of blues singers, and athletes. And while those people are authentic and important representations, why do they put any white congressman, many white governors, senators and obviously, the white presidents, but not a single African-American elected official has ever been on a postage stamp?

GORDON: The Senator and The Socialite: The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty is the book. The author is Lawrence Otis Graham. And Lawrence, we thank you for being with us.

Mr. GRAHAM: Thanks for having me.

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