Born into slavery in 1841, Blanche Kelso Bruce became the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate, as well as the first African American to preside over the Senate. One of 11 children, Bruce was born near Farmville, Virginia, and was taken to Mississippi and Missouri by his owner. Just 20 years old when the Civil War began, Bruce tried to enlist in the Union army. At that time, the army did not accept black recruits, so instead Bruce turned to teaching; he later organized the first school in Missouri for African Americans. He briefly attended college in Ohio but left to work as a porter on a riverboat. In 1869 Bruce moved to Mississippi to become a cotton planter. Active in Mississippi Republican politics, he served as supervisor of elections, tax assessor, sheriff, superintendent of education, and sergeant at arms of the state senate. In 1874 the Mississippi legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate where he served until 1881.
In the Senate, Bruce was a member of the committees on Pensions, Manufactures, and Education and Labor. He chaired the Committee on River Improvements and the Select Committee to Investigate the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company. He supported desegregation of the army, protection of African American voting rights, and more humane treatment of Native Americans. Bruce encouraged increasing the disposition of western land grants to African Americans. On February 14, 1879, Bruce became the first African American to preside over the Senate.
Bruce worked devotedly to gain rights for African Americans. After leaving the Senate, he was appointed registrar of the U.S. Treasury by President James Garfield. At the Republican convention of 1888, Bruce received 11 votes for vice president. He was appointed recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and later was a member of the board of trustees of Howard University. Bruce died in Washington, D.C., in 1898.