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United States & World

Author Chronicles Black Senator's Socialite Past

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The 110th session of Congress reconvenes today. Lawmakers have been on their August recess, and a good number of them were on a campaign trail. And one of those lawmakers is getting, well, let's say more than a usual megawatt glare of publicity associated with the presidential bid: the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who's making a serious bid to become the first black president. Obama, of course, also has the distinction of being only the second African-American to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction.

So that seemed like a good excuse to examine the life of the nation's first African-American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate, Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce. A former slave, Bruce served in the Senate from 1875 to 1881, and the Bruce family story has been chronicled in a new book, "The Senator and the Socialite."

I'm joined by the author, Lawrence Otis Graham, to talk more.

Welcome, Lawrence.

Mr. LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM (Author, "The Senator and the Socialite"): Thanks very much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: How was it possible for Bruce to be elected to the Senate from Mississippi, where he was a former slave from Virginia? I mean, there are no African-American statewide officials in Mississippi now.

Mr. GRAHAM: Excellent point. We had one black senator in 1875, and we still only have one black senator 130-some years later. He was - after he was freed in 1863, he went to Oberlin College in Ohio, which is one of the few schools at that time that would educate blacks.

He then heard about Reconstruction, moved down to Mississippi. He was approached by the local Republican Party, which back then was the Liberal Party. It was Lincoln's Republican Party. And they said, we'd like for you to run for a local sheriff.

And at that time - most people don't realize this, but in certain states like Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, since these were large slaveholding states, blacks could vote and they could run for office. So - and they outnumbered whites. So it was literally possible for blacks to get elected to positions like local sheriff and mayor and superintendent of schools. He became tax collector, tax assessor…

MARTIN: Forgive me, but I was not aware that blacks could vote before…

Mr. GRAHAM: Yes, they…

MARTIN: …in the immediate aftermath of slavery. I was not aware of that.

Mr. GRAHAM: …yes, it was a very short period. It was a 12-year period that Reconstruction lasted - 1866, they were allowed to vote. And that continued until, basically, the rise of the Klan.

MARTIN: So he was approached to run for sheriff, tax collector and stuff like that, okay. But…

Mr. GRAHAM: Right.

MARTIN: …how did he get to the Senate?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, it's interesting that…

MARTIN: Tax collectors don't tend to be that popular.

Mr. GRAHAM: No, they don't.

MARTIN: Of any color.

Mr. GRAHAM: But what they do - the advantage that they did have at that time is that as tax collector, you were permitted at that time to keep a percentage of the property that you foreclosed on. And there were a lot of white Confederates who were losing their property. They had lost all their money during the Civil War. He foreclosed on a lot of the property, which slowly made him a well-to-do man.

The Republican Party came to him - because at that time, remember, he had a college education. At that time, not only was it rare for blacks to have a college education, it was rare for whites to have it. They came to him and they said, we want you to run for lieutenant governor of Mississippi along with a white candidate, Adelbert Ames. And that was really his launch into sort of power politics.

MARTIN: Briefly, I'm looking at the cover of the book. The senators is a very - he's very light skinned. Was he biracial?

Mr. GRAHAM: He was. His mother was black. The assumption is that his father was the plantation owner where he and his brothers and sisters and mother worked.

MARTIN: When he did go to the Senate, how was he treated? I mean - and did his heritage - I mean, I think people get all excited about people being biracial now, but I think, you know, the assumption has to be that that was a fairly common phenomenon.

Mr. GRAHAM: Of course, the presumption is when he arrived in Washington after he was elected to the Senate, when he arrived, obviously, he was the only black man. The tradition has always been that the new senator would be sworn, in escorted by the senior member from that state, since every state has two senators.

And in this case, it was James Alcorn, a white senator who actually had been his mentor back in Mississippi, but had been his mentor so long as he did not run for the Senate.

When he ran for the Senate, Alcorn suddenly wanted nothing to do with him because he felt I don't want him to now be an equal. So the day of his swearing in, Alcorn refused - even though his name was called repeatedly to come walk Blanche Bruce down the aisle, he wouldn't do it.

And this was the beginning of the type of treatment that Bruce got for the first two years in the Senate, where the other senators would not eat with him. Washington was a segregated city, so he certainly could not even ride in coaches with them or even restaurants with them. But some of them wouldn't even join legislation that he was proposing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to Lawrence Otis Graham about his new book, "The Senator and the Socialite," which chronicles the nation's first African-American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate, Bruce Blanche. The book is titled, "The Senator and the Socialite." So I wanted to ask you about the socialite, as Senator Bruce made a rather advantageous marriage, I would say.

Mr. GRAHAM: Yes.

MARTIN: To Josephine Wilson, a daughter of a prominent Philadelphia doctor. Why was she so important to the story?

Mr. GRAHAM: She was important to the story because her family was well to do. They were free blacks. They have been slaves three generations prior, but her mother had gone to college, father had cone to college, brother was a lawyer. She and her sister were all schoolteachers, all college educated.

They had the polish that he lacked that he needed in order to have a successful career. When he first proposed to her, her parents first said, we cannot allow this. You cannot marry a former slave, and they wrote letters to him saying, you know, we cannot have former slaves at any wedding.

And so, finally, it's not until he literally got on a train from Washington and went to Saks, the department store in New York - the precursor of Saks Fifth Avenue, Saks & Company - spent $300 - this is in 1878 - and bought clothes and gifts, waited until his cancelled check came back, mailed the check and the clothes in a box with a note to her parents saying, I hope you will see this as evidence that I will be able to provide for your daughter. A week later, her father writes back to him and says, okay, you can marry her.

MARTIN: See, that's a reality show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's not - that's a reality show right there.

Mr. GRAHAM: So even back in 1878, it meant a whole lot that you're of, you know, future husband could provide for you. But what she was able to do was she taught him how to attract the attention of the intellectuals, of the liberal intellectuals in Washington.

She was one that said to him, we need to buy an important home in Washington. She hosted these soirees and conversations about politics, which allowed him, then, to become an adviser to future presidents because they saw him as a person who was not just good as a senator, but could also advise on policy issues.

MARTIN: Now what are those - do you see resonance for it today? It's interesting to me that…

Mr. GRAHAM: Absolutely, because the class and race issues, Michel, that we saw then are not very different from today. Black America also did not know how to accept to Blanche Bruce in the same way that many of working-class black America initially was reluctant to embrace Barack Obama because they said, does he really understand our experience having gone to Columbia and Harvard Law School? Will he get it?

And that was the same issue 130 years ago. They're these talented, accomplished blacks. But because of their own success, people find it difficult to embrace them because they want to hear of the, you know, the pulling up my boot straps. You know, they want to hear that story. They're more comforted by that story…

MARTIN: But, you know, one difference that I see is that Senator Bruce was willing to make some very, I would say, serious compromises…

Mr. GRAHAM: Yes.

MARTIN: …that I don't see Barack Obama making.

Mr. GRAHAM: Right.

MARTIN: For example, his own brother wasn't invited to the wedding.

Mr. GRAHAM: Josephine's parents said, you know, okay, you can marry our daughter, but no member of your family can attend. And he was willing to do that. And, in fact, in many cases, he relinquished ties to many of his family members where they did not - were not allowed to visit. He would visit them with his son, but Josephine would not even visit those relatives.

MARTIN: That is just so painful to even contemplate. Tie a bow on this story from me. Don't give it all away.

MARTIN: Right.

MARTIN: But what do you make of the fact that, you know, our narrative of American history is very incomplete. And I think people have this narrative -okay, there were slavery, and then there was all the horror that, you know, that followed: the Klan, and, you know, the Night Riders, the lynching era. And now we've sort of slowly climbed our way out of that mess, and we're trying to climb our way into a more egalitarian reality. And come to find out that, you know, there was an African-American in the Senate in the late 19th century with, you know, full privileges and sort of couldn't - was shunned socially, but had some power. And that, in fact, there was a regression…

Mr. GRAHAM: Right.

MARTIN: …that advances were made and then lost.

Mr. GRAHAM: Exactly, and tremendous advances. I mean…

MARTIN: So what does this do for our knowledge of history? How do you interpret this?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, how I interpret this is that it's very important for all of us to understand that this can be accomplished. But I do have to say that when you look at - because a lot of the people make the comparison saying, well, is the success or the lack of success of blacks in politics the same as the success of, or lack of success of women?

And I say, their blues are not like ours at all in the sense that you look at the U.S. Senate today, and there are 16 white women in the Senate. There are nine white women who are governors. Yet - even though blacks could vote in the 1860s and women didn't get to vote until the 1920s - there's only one black in the U.S. Senate, one black governor. So…

MARTIN: Okay. But women are half the population and African-Americans are 13 percent of the population. Based on the numbers…

Mr. GRAHAM: That's true. But the presumption is…

MARTIN: …(unintelligible) that white women would have more of an advantage just on the numbers.

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, sure. But there's something where people have a difficult time crossing the racial line, but they don't have a difficult time crossing the gender line when it comes to voting. But I think that one lesson that we can learn from Blanche Bruce is that it's been done before. There are these great black success stories in politics and government, and coalitions have been built, and we can do it again. And he was someone that - although he only lasted one term in the Senate - he was someone who was, indeed, still embraced by white Mississippians in the 1870s.

MARTIN: Lawrence Otis Graham is the author of "The Senator and the Socialite," among other books. He joined us from our New York bureau. You can find more information about the book at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

Lawrence Otis Graham, thank you so much.

Mr. GRAHAM: I appreciate it, Michel. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.