A clubwoman, teacher, society leader, and race activist, Josephine Beall Willson Bruce was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 29, 1853, to Dr. Joseph Willson, a prominent dentist, and Elizabeth Harnett Willson, a singer and musician. In 1854 the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio where Josephine Willson received her education. An accomplished linguist, she enjoyed literature and classical music.
On June 24, 1878, she married Republican senator Blanche K. Bruce, a political leader and plantation owner from Mississippi and the only black United States senator. After touring Europe they established residence in Washington, D.C. With Josephine Bruce a cultured and charming hostess, the Bruce home became a center of Washington social life. Though Blanche Bruce’s term ended in 1880 he received political appointments in Washington enabling the couple to remain active in social and community life.
Josephine Bruce became interested in the emerging women’s club movement and in 1892 became one of the charter members of the Colored Woman’s League of Washington, D.C. As one of a small group of black women in the nation’s capital who organized the National Organization of Afro-American Women (1894) to improve and promote the interests of black women, Bruce spoke at the convention of the National Federation of Afro-American Women in 1896. That convention led to the merger of two organizations forming the National Association of Colored Women. This early leadership helped her election as first vice president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) at the 1899 convention. At that organization’s 1906 meeting she was an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency when her fair complexion was used against her. Although she reduced her involvement with the NACW, she continued her club activities.
Shortly after her husband died in 1898, Josephine Bruce joined the staff at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, becoming dean of women and remaining in that position until 1902. In addition to her club and educational work, she wrote articles, one for The Crisis and three for the Voice of the Negro. She edited National Notes, the official organ of the National Association of Colored Women. She also managed real estate holdings in the District of Columbia and a plantation in Mississippi.
Josephine Bruce died on February 24, 1923, at the residence of her son in Kendall, West Virginia.