A former slave, Blanche Kelso Bruce, becomes a U.S. Senator (1875-81), a man of wealth and prestige; a couple of generations later, all is gone.
Graham, who has published previously on race and class (Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, 1999, etc.), ends with a sad image. At a 2002 unveiling of a portrait of Sen. Bruce in the U.S. Capitol, only one member of the populous Bruce family attended. (Some, we learn, are apparently passing for white.) The author charts the spectacular rise and fall of the Bruces. Born in 1841, Bruce moved around a bit with his white owners, who were involved both in tobacco and cotton. After his manumission (the details of which are sketchy), Bruce barely escaped Quantrill’s raiders in Kansas and, after a brief stop at Oberlin College (he ran out of money, didn’t graduate), ended up in Mississippi, where he profited mightily from Reconstruction and from the recent enfranchisement of freed slaves. After holding a few offices (including county sheriff), Bruce won the Senate election in the state legislature and headed off to Washington. He married a well-to-do woman from a prominent black family and with his own healthy investments in Mississippi real estate, they lived well and sent their son, Roscoe, to Phillips Exeter and Harvard, where he excelled. After the senator died, both his widow and son worked for Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. But Roscoe, says Graham, was an arrogant man who preferred the company of whites, and he soon fell from grace (he’d once dined with the Rockefellers). The fortune melted away in the next generation—as did the prestige. Roscoe’s son (also named Roscoe) served a prison sentence; a daughter passed for white; a third son also had legal difficulties. Graham’s research is impressive and comprehensive—though some disjointedness, abruptness and occasional omissions suggest substantial textual cuts.
A compelling story that shows how the American Dream can transmute into the American Nightmare.