February 14, 1879
Former Slave Presides over Senate
On February 14, 1879, a Republican senator from Mississippi presided over the Senate. In this instance, the Senate's customary practice of rotating presiding officers during routine floor proceedings set an important milestone. The senator who temporarily assumed those duties had a personal background that no other senator, before or since, could claim—he had been born into slavery.
Blanche K. Bruce was born 38 years earlier near Farmville, Virginia. The youngest of 11 children, he worked in fields and factories from Virginia to Mississippi. Intelligent and ambitious, Bruce gained his earliest formal education from the tutor hired to teach his master's son.
At the start of the Civil War, Bruce escaped slavery by fleeing to Kansas. He attended Oberlin College for two years and then moved to Mississippi, where he purchased an abandoned cotton plantation and began amassing a real estate fortune. In 1874, while Mississippi remained under postwar military control, the state legislature elected Bruce to the U.S. Senate. Several years earlier, that legislature had sent the Senate its first African-American member when it elected Hiram Revels to fill out the remaining months of an unexpired term.
Blanche Bruce's Senate service got off to a rough start when political issues led Mississippi's other senator, James Alcorn, to refuse to escort Bruce to the front of the chamber to take his oath of office. As Bruce started down the aisle alone, New York Republican Roscoe Conkling moved to his side and completed the journey to the rostrum. The grateful senator later named his only son Roscoe Conkling Bruce.
Withdrawal of the military government in Mississippi ended Republican control of that state's political institutions and any chance that Bruce might serve more than a single term. That term, however, proved to be an active one as he advocated civil rights for blacks, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and even former Confederates. It was during a heated debate on a bill to exclude Chinese immigrants that Bruce made history at the presiding officer's desk.
After leaving the Senate, Bruce held a variety of key government and educational posts until his death in 1898.