“Always the Gentleman”: Senator Blanche K. Bruce and Newt Knight’s Relief Bill of 1880
By Ed Payne
It’s unlikely that United States Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce of Mississippi ever met Newt Knight, the man on whose behalf he submitted a bill of relief in February of 1880. Bruce only settled within the Magnolia State in 1869 and his Delta political base in Bolivar County was a world removed from the heavily forested Piney Woods of south Mississippi where Newt Knight lived. A state Republican probably prevailed upon the senator to perform this favor. Still, the 1880 relief bill is emblematic of a unique point in American history when an African-American U.S. Senator born in slavery and representing a Deep South state could put forth a claim on behalf of a white man who led local opposition to Confederate authority.
Largely forgotten today, Blanche Bruce left the Senate in 1881 as the only African-American to serve a full six-year term. He retained this distinction until Edward Brooke of Massachusetts completed his first term in 1973 (Note 1).
Bruce was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1841. His mother, Polly, worked as a domestic slave in the household of Pettus Perkinson and his wife, Rebecca Bruce Perkinson. Previously, Polly had been owned by Rebecca’s father, Lemuel Bruce. In addition to having two children with his wife, Lemuel produced five children with Polly. Since Lemuel Bruce died in 1836, it is has been assumed that Pettus Perkinson was the father of Blanche and several of his siblings. Throughout his public career, commentators noted that Bruce’s appearance suggested a lineage that was at least three-quarters white.
Blanche Bruce grew up in a twilight world between slave and slave-owner. He and his half-brother Henry Clay Bruce later recollected childhoods mostly removed from the harsh realities of life for field slaves. Before their white mistress Rebecca’s early death, she and Pettus had one child together, a son named William. Blanche, only a year younger than his white half-brother, served as William’s playmate and received instruction from the same tutor. Following his wife’s death, Pettus Perkinson moved his household to Missouri, back to Virginia, then to Mississippi before finally re-settling in northern Missouri. Blanche remained with William until the latter enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861. Only then did he make his way to Lawrence, Kansas, and thereby gain emancipation. He became a school teacher, but after narrowly escaping the bloody raid on Lawrence led by Confederate renegade William Quantrill, moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where he established that state’s first school for African-American students.
After the Civil War, Blanche Bruce worked for a period as a porter on a steamboat plying the upper Mississippi River before resuming his education at Oberlin College in Ohio. His scant finances did not permit him to obtain a degree and he left after a year. But he began to hear of opportunities opening up for ambitious, educated African-Americans in the Deep South. Changes achieved during Congressional Reconstruction included enfranchising freedmen, thereby causing a dramatic shift in the political equation. Bruce arrived in Mississippi in February, 1869, with little more than the clothes on his back.
Blanche Bruce entered a Mississippi which had experienced a decade of warfare and social turmoil. In the antebellum period the state’s economy centered on cotton and the slave-labor deemed necessary to produce it. By 1860 slaves comprised 55.2% of the state population of 791,305, a percentage only exceeded by South Carolina (57.2%). Slave ownership resided in the hands of 30,943 persons, but kinship and economic ties produced a much larger circle of those dependent upon the Peculiar Institution. Nevertheless, as elsewhere in the South, there were regions of sparse slave ownership, usually hilly lands not conducive to plantation agriculture. Mississippi had two such areas: the northeast corner of the state and the Piney Woods.
Following close on the heels of South Carolina, Mississippi seceded from the Union in 1861 and began mobilizing for war. A minority of citizens retained loyalty to the Union, but soon found it prudent to keep such views to themselves. Thousands of young men joined military companies which formed in the spring and summer of 1861. Those less infected with martial ardor and with families dependent on their labor, rather than that of slaves, often did not enlist until confronted with passage of the Confederacy’s first Conscription Act in April of 1862.
By summer of 1863, Union troops had penetrated the interior of the state and on July 4, after a 47 day siege, captured Vicksburg and gained control of the Mississippi River. A number of Confederate soldiers who lacked an economic stake in slavery decided they had done their duty and returned to their small farms. In desperate need of manpower, Confederate troops made periodic attempts to round up these deserters and compel them back into service. In some cases they were met with armed resistance. Newt Knight’s compensation claim stemmed from such circumstances.
The war ended in April 1865, having devastated the state’s economy and resulted in the death of approximately 25,000 of its men. But political leaders conceded little beyond military defeat. That fall legislators, unnerved by a majority population of newly free slaves and heedless of Northern opinion, passed the South’s first Black Codes. These codes sought to retain many of the legal and social restraints of slavery. They and other evidence of Southern intransigence galvanized Northern voters, who increased Republican strength in the Congressional elections of 1866. Congress subsequently imposed Military Reconstruction across the South.
General Adelbert Ames, a native of Maine, was appointed provision governor of Mississippi. He implemented the Congressional mandates to remove ex-Confederates from offices and to assemble a convention to draft a new state constitution—one which repealed the Black Codes and enfranchised freedmen. Ames assumed leadership of the state’s radical Republican faction. However, his uncompromising policies generated growing animosity among moderate Republicans led by former slave-owner turned scalawag James L. Alcorn.
Bruce arrived amid this political maelstrom and quickly came to the attention of Alcorn, then campaigning for governor. True to rumors that led him to the state, Bruce found quick entrée into Republican politics. Alcorn won the governorship and supported Bruce in obtaining the post of Sergeant-at-Arms in the Mississippi legislature. The legislature elected Ames as U.S. Senator, with moderate Republicans no doubt delighted to see him relocated to Washington, D.C. (Until 1913 U.S. Senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than by popular vote.)
Governor Alcorn next named Bruce as tax assessor for Bolivar County, in the fertile Mississippi Delta. Since tax assessors received a 7% commission, it promised to be a lucrative post. African-Americans composed 80% of the county’s population, while land ownership remained concentrated in the hands of white planters. The planters resented Republican efforts to shift more of the tax burden onto their shoulders. Inserted into this volatile environment, Bruce proved to be honest, industrious, and a model of tact. So much so that within a short time several white planters came forward to post the $15,000 bond necessary for Bruce to run for the combined office of county Sheriff and Tax Collector. Bruce won the election and also received an appointment as county superintendent of education. In the latter role he achieved notable improvements in the Bolivar County school system and managed to convince key planters that a labor force with at least rudimentary education would be more productive.
Over the course of a few short years Bruce proved himself to be what many white Southerners emphatically insisted could not exist: an energetic, educated, and efficient African-American public official. Historian William C. Harris noted:
“In view of the political and racial hostilities of the postwar South and the continuation of the white-dominated plantation economy in the Delta, [Bruce’s] success in allaying local planter fears was a remarkable achievement.”
Planter confidence in Bruce further increased when, in 1874, his growing prosperity enabled him to purchase 640 acres of land and establish his own plantation operation.
The careful efforts of Bruce to maintain cordial relations with both the moderate and radical factions of his party ended during the 1874 gubernatorial race. In November 1871 James Alcorn resigned his post of governor to serve as a U.S. Senator alongside his nemesis Adelbert Ames. The two men returned to Mississippi in early 1873 to battle for political dominance in the governor’s race. The Alcorn moderates sought a biracial constituency, whereas the Ames radicals felt they could win by solely appealing to the state’s black majority—a constituency who had grown suspicious of the moderates’ intensions. With both candidates offering serious enticements to garner Bruce’s support, he was forced into a decision. He sided with the Ames faction.
As Bruce had correctly deduced, overwhelming support from African-American voters, combined with sullen non-participation by many whites, allowed Ames to defeat Alcorn. Bruce had made his ambitions known and in February of 1874 claimed his reward when the Republican dominated legislature elected him as U.S. Senator. His term did not commence until thirteen months later in March of 1875.
Bruce hardly had time to savor his victory before his power-base within the state began to crumble. Sensing that Northern commitment to Reconstruction was waning, Mississippi Democrats made an all-out push for power during the summer of 1875, combining appeals for white racial solidarity with a well-organized campaign of voter intimidation. A mere eight months after Bruce took his seat in the Senate, the November 1875 elections effectively ended Republican control at the county and statewide level. Faced with a bill of impeachment, Governor Adelbert Ames negotiated his resignation from office in March of 1876 and left the state.
Senator Bruce sought to reverse the tide by supporting a Congressional investigation of the 1875 Mississippi elections and protesting the removal of federal troops at a time of increasing racial violence in the state. But these efforts yielded no concrete results. Turning his attention to more productive avenues, Bruce consistently supported claims for pensions and bounties due African-American soldiers and their families for Union service. He aided his region through membership on the Committee on the Improvement of the Mississippi River and its Tributaries. In 1879 he spoke out against the Chinese Exclusion Bill, noting his “large confidence in the strength and assimilative powers of our institutions.” Ever the voice of conciliation, he formed a mutually cordial relationship with L.Q.C. Lamar—the man who had drafted the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession and was elected junior Senator by the now Democrat-controlled state legislature in 1877.
Given his support of Civil War claims on behalf of African-Americans veterans, his Republican Party affiliation, and perhaps also his lame duck status, Senator Bruce seemed a logical choice to introduce the Newt Knight claim in 1880. Not being a member of the Committee on Claims, however, he could do little more.
Blanche Bruce had a mixed reputation among African-Americans during and after his senatorial term. His mild manner and amiable disposition did not compare favorably with the strident oratory of his contemporary Frederick Douglass. After his marriage in 1878 to Josephine Wilson, a light-skinned African-American socialite, the black press charged that Bruce seemed more interested in advancing into white high society than addressing the plight of African-Americans in the South. William C. Harris noted:
“Ever the harmonizer, Bruce refused to admit, what the black masses and their local leaders knew, that the Reconstruction dream of black assimilation into white American society had died with the collapse of Reconstruction in the South and the abandonment of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution.”
Facing the loss of his political base in Mississippi, Bruce cultivated Republican Party connections in Washington, D.C. After his senatorial term ended in 1881, he gained a presidential appointment as Register of the Treasury. Bruce noted with delight and satisfaction that his signature now appeared on U.S. paper currency. He later opened a law practice and lectured widely on racial matters. During two Republican administrations Bruce served as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, the position he held when he died of diabetes on 17 March 1898.
A eulogy published in The Colored American delineated the ambiguous legacy Bruce left within the African-American community:
“His strong point as a politician lay in the fact that he was a consummate strategist, one who made politics the study of his life, and who applied all the arts known to practical politics to compass his ends . . . . He was the personification of courtesy and courtliness, and his well known tact in emergencies saved him from many embarrassments. These qualities endeared him to white men, particularly those who believe that the Negro has a place and should keep it. Mr. Bruce was not an aggressive leader. He believed rather in moral suasion and the arts of diplomacy… (Frederick) Douglass and (John M.) Langston were his superiors in intellect and scholarship, but he was a better politician than either…”
The Deep South where he first rose to power had embraced the policies of Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement of African-Americans. Nevertheless, the Raymond, Mississippi, Hinds County Gazette felt the obligation to note Bruce’s passing and describe him as “always the gentleman, graceful, polished, self-assured and never humble.”
Note 1: Two notable African-American contemporaries of Blanche K. Bruce were Hiram R. Revels and John Roy Lynch. Hiram R. Revels completed the unexpired senatorial term of Jefferson Davis and John Roy Lynch was elected to three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Against Southern Reconstruction stereotypes, all three were conceded even by hostile contemporaries as highly capable. After John Roy Lynch presided as Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1872, it was a white Democrat who moved for the adoption of a resolution in his honor. The Jackson, Mississippi Clarion observed, “His bearing in office has been so proper, and his ruling in such marked contrast to the partisan conduct of the ignoble whites of his party… that the conservatives cheerfully joined in the testimonial.” Lynch later authored The Facts of Reconstruction. [Clarion quote from James Wilford Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi (New York: MacMillan, 1901), 296.]
The most thorough scholarly assessment of the life of Blanche K. Bruce is Sadie Daniel St. Clair, “The National Career of Blanche Kelso Bruce” (PhD diss., New York University, 1947). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation Express. (AAT 0000938).
Other academic studies include William C. Harris, “Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist,” in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, ed. Howard N. Rabinowitz (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 3-38; Melvin I. Urofsky, “Blanche K. Bruce: United States Senator, 1875-1881,” Journal of Mississippi History, Vol 29, No 2 (May, 1967), 118-141; Kenneth Eugene Mann, “Blanche Kelso Bruce: United States Senator without a constituency,” Journal of Mississippi History, Vol 38, No 2 (May, 1976), 183-198.
A recent popular account of the life of Blanche K. Bruce, his wife, and their descendants is Lawrence Otis Graham, The Senator and the Socialite (New York: Harper, 2006).