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The Senator and the Socialite

The Senator and the Socialite Cover

The Senator and the Socialite

The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty

By Lawrence Otis Graham

HarperCollins, Hardcover, 9780060184124, 480pp.

Publication Date: July 1, 2006


This is the true story of America's first black dynasty. The years after the Civil War represented an astonishing moment of opportunity for African-Americans. The rush to build a racially democratic society from the ruins of slavery is never more evident than in the personal history of Blanche Kelso Bruce and his heirs.

Born a slave in 1841, Bruce became a local Mississippi sheriff, developed a growing Republican power base, amassed a real-estate fortune, and became the first black to serve a full Senate term. He married Josephine Willson, the daughter of a wealthy black Philadelphia doctor. Together they broke racial barriers as a socialite couple in 1880s Washington, D.C.

By befriending President Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and a cadre of liberal black and white Republicans, Bruce spent six years in the U.S. Senate, then gained appointments under four presidents (Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, and McKinley), culminating with a top Treasury post, which placed his name on all U.S. currency.

During Reconstruction, the Bruce family entertained lavishly in their two Washington town houses and acquired an 800-acre plantation, homes in four states, and a fortune that allowed their son and grandchildren to attend Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, beginning in 1896.

The Senator's legacy would continue with his son, Roscoe, who became both a protege of Booker T. Washington and a superintendent of Washington, D.C.'s segregated schools. When the family moved to New York in the 1920s and formed an alliance with John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Bruces became an enviable force in Harlem society. Their public battle to get their grandson admitted into Harvard University's segregated dormitories elicited the support of people like W. E. B. Du Bois and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and broke brave new ground for blacks of their day.

But in the end, the Bruce dynasty's wealth and stature would disappear when the Senator's grandson landed in prison following a sensational trial and his Radcliffe-educated granddaughter married a black Hollywood actor who passed for white.

By drawing on Senate records, historic documents, and the personal letters of Senator Bruce, Josephine, their colleagues, friends, children, and grandchildren, author Lawrence Otis Graham weaves a riveting social history that spans 120 years. From Mississippi to Washington, D.C., to New York, The Senator and the Socialite provides a fascinating look into the history of race and class in America.

Praise For The Senator and the Socialite

“A compelling portrait of the Bruce family’s rise, dynamics and downfall…A poignant tale of struggle, accomplishment…an illuminating account.”
-Washington Post

“Graham digs deep and unearths secrets in…his absorbing book on money, class and color issues.”

“This book opens the door to a rich, though frustrating, period in the country’s past.”
-New York Post

“Provides thorough and solid historical detail, political analysis and cultural discussion. Entertaining, intriguing and sometimes amazing story.”
-Book Page

“Not just a history but a revealing commentary on race and class, and their force in shaping our lives today.”
-Chicago Tribune

“Excellent history of slavery, Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, late 19th century politics and the misunderstood differences between early Republicans and Democrats.”
-San Francisco Chronicle

“Graham expertly breaks down historical events.”
-Entertainment Weekly

“A rare, detailed glimpse into politics, race, and class in post-Reconstruction America.”
-U.S. News & World Report

“Graham paints a compelling portrait of the important role Bruce played in the country’s history.”
-Chicago Sun-Times

“Graham is a superb storyteller, and the Bruce dynasty perfect fodder for this gifted writer.”
-Amsterdam News

“Graham is an incisive historian [who] brings Senator Bruce to life through his careful research and clear narrative.”
-Biloxi Sun Herald

“This account of a black family is a rags to riches to welfare tale that ought to intrigue.”
-Publishers Weekly

“In another piece of powerful nonfiction, Lawrence Otis Graham returns to the shelves with The Senator and The Socialite.”

“Graham details the political machinations of the post-Reconstruction South and one man’s attempt to build and maintain a dynasty.”

“Graham...recovers the history of a family that broke barriers in Washington and at Exeter and Harvard.”
-The New Yorker

“Graham’s research is impressive and comprehensive.…this compelling story shows how the American Dream can transmute into the American nightmare.”
-Kirkus Reviews

“Graham’s strength is his intricate deliniation of class, color, culture and social climbing.”
-USA Today

“Informative…many striking tales. Mr. Graham is right to want to bring the story to a reading public.”
-Wall Street Journal