FEBRUARY 14, 1879

Blanche Kelso Bruce Credit: U.S. Senate Collection

Blanche Kelso Bruce became the first Black American to preside over the U.S. Senate. He was also the first Black American to serve a full term in the Senate and later the first Black American to win any votes at a major party’s nominating convention. 

After escaping from slavery during the Civil War, he attempted to enlist in the Union Army. When he was turned down, he began teaching, eventually organizing Missouri’s first school for Black children in Hannibal. After making his way down the Mississippi River, he decided to enter politics, rising through the ranks of Republican leaders, elected sheriff of Bolivar County, then the county superintendent of education. He turned the Bolivar County school system into one of the best in the state, becoming a well-known figure across the state. 

In 1874, the Mississippi Legislature chose Bruce to fill the governor’s vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. After Mississippi’s violent 1875 election, Bruce championed a bill to investigate the political conditions there. The bill passed the Senate, but the House, controlled by Democrats, did nothing. He pushed for the desegregation of the U.S. Army, citing what had already happened in the U.S. Navy. 

In 1880, he railed against the treatment of Native Americans. “Our Indian policy and administration seem to me to have been inspired and controlled by stern selfishness,” he said. 

He introduced legislation to assist destitute Black farmers in Kansas. Although the bill died in committee, it led to the distribution of duty–free British cotton clothing to impoverished Kansas communities. 

When the Mississippi Legislature, now controlled by Democrats, gathered to select a new senator in January 1880, Bruce didn’t bother. Lawmakers chose one of Mississippi’s “redeemers” of Reconstruction, White Democrat James Z. George, to replace him. 

Bruce went on to serve as register of the U.S. Treasury and died of diabetes complications in 1898. In 2001, the Senate wing of the Capitol unveiled a portrait of Bruce, based on a Matthew Brady photograph. The statue of George, however, continues to represent the state of Mississippi, along with Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.