Blanche Kelso Bruce was born a slave in 1841 in Prince Edward County, Virginia but was raised in Missouri. Shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, Bruce fled to Kansas, becoming a free man before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
After the Civil War he returned to Missouri and founded the first school for African Americans in Hannibal. Bruce briefly attended Oberlin College, but out of funds, began working as a steamboat porter on the Mississippi River. Hearing Mississippi gubernatorial candidate James L. Alcorn speak, Bruce decided to move to the state in 1869 to enter politics.
Mentored by white Republicans, his political rise was swift. He was sergeant at arms in the State Senate, then Sheriff and Tax Collector of Bolivar County in 1871. As Bolivar County Superintendent of Education, he started more schools. Financially successful due to his job as Sheriff, he bought a 640-acre plantation in Floreyville, Mississippi in 1873.
Bruce was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate in 1875 and served to 1881. Although he was the second black Senator, after fellow Mississippian Hiram Revels, he was the first to serve a full term. When the Democrats gained control of the state in the same year he was elected, Bruce became increasingly isolated politically. Through the remainder of his term he supported freedman’s issues against the backdrop of Democratic rule of Mississippi.
While a senator, Bruce argued for levee systems and railroad construction, advocated political reform in federal elections, and spoke out for civil rights for blacks, Native Americans, and Chinese who were becoming a major labor force in the Delta region of the state.
After his Senate term ended Bruce was appointed to three posts by Republican Presidents. President James Garfield named him Register of the Treasury, a post he held until 1885. He served as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia between 1889 and 1893 under Benjamin Harrison. When William McKinley became president in 1897 Bruce was again appointed Register of the Treasury. Blanche Kelso Bruce died in 1898 while holding this office.