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Blanche Kelso Bruce : Civil Rights Pioneer, U.S. Senator, Banknote Signer

United States Senator. Register of the Treasury. Born May 1, 1841 in Farmville, Virginia. Died March 17, 1898.

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Blanche Bruce Official Portrait. Image: Library of Congress.
Blanche Bruce Official Portrait. Image: Library of Congress.

Born Branch Bruce in Farmville, Virginia, he changed his name to Blanche in his teenage years (he also adopted the name Kelso later in life). Bruce’s father was slave owner Pettus Perkinson; his mother, Polly Bruce, was Perkinson’s slave. As a child, Bruce was the personal servant of his half brother William Perkinson, but he was also allowed to study with his brother’s tutor.

During the American Civil War, Bruce fled to Kansas and attempted to enlist in the Union Army but was rejected. He taught school in Lawrence during the war, and, in 1864, moved to Hannibal, Missouri to establish a school for black children. After the war, Bruce worked as a steamboat porter.

His political career began in 1870, with an appointment to serve as the register of Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, during Reconstruction. Shortly thereafter, Bruce was elected Sergeant-at-Arms for the state legislature. In 1871, he won election to the positions of sheriff and tax collector of Bolivar County, Mississippi. He found success turning the county’s school system into an equally-funded yet segregated program.

But this was a fractious time in Mississippi state politics. With racial tensions brewing over Northern rule, a white-led faction fractured the state Republican Party. Bruce, who more closely aligned with Governor Adelbert Ames, a Northern-born military governor turned elected governor, than the more conservative wing of the state party, sought an open Senate seat, which at the time was selected by the state legislature. Bruce was elected by the full state legislature by a near-unanimous vote on February 5, 1874. He took office a year later and was the second African-American to serve in the United States Senate. He served one full term and did not seek reelection. As a senator, he stood notably in opposition to the Union’s Indian policies and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

His wife was Josephine Beall Wilson, the first black teacher in the Cleveland, Ohio public school system.

Blanche K. Bruce as Register of the Treasury

Bruce served as United States Register of the Treasury from May 21, 1881, to June 5, 1885. He was the first African-American to hold the position, and the only person to hold it twice after he returned to the post on December 3, 1897. Bruce served in the role until March 17, 1898, when he died of a kidney ailment brought about by diabetes. His signature can be found on various denominations of Series 1880 Legal Tender Notes, First and Second Charter National Bank Notes (including the Series 1882 Brown Back, Value Back, and Date Back notes), Series 1880 and 1891 Silver Certificates, Series 1882 Gold Certificates, Series 1891 Treasury Notes, and the esteemed Series 1896 Educational Note Silver Certificates.

Blanche Kelso Bruce facsimile signature.
Blanche Kelso Bruce’s facsimile signature as it appeared on U.S. currency.

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