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Picture of Blanche Kelso Bruce
Blanche Kelso Bruce

Blanche K. Bruce achieved a number of firsts. He became the first black to serve as a full-time senator and the first black whose signature appeared on U.S. currency. Bruce also founded the first school for blacks in Missouri.

Born a slave in Virginia, Bruce received a formal early education from the private tutor assigned to teach his owner's son, despite the state ban against educating slaves. Later, as a printer's apprentice, he continued to read voraciously.

Understanding the value of education, he used his limited resources to establish an elementary school for blacks in Missouri. After teaching a few months, he realized he needed more education and enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio. He studied there until his money ran out.

With 75 cents in his pocket, Bruce moved to Mississippi at age 27. His interests soon turned to politics, and he became supervisor of elections in Tallahatchie County. Within six years Bruce became a school superintendent. He later served as sergeant-at-arms in the state Senate, and as a member of the flood control commission for the Mississippi Delta.

He was one of the few blacks to serve as a delegate to the 1872 Republican National Convention. He turned down a request to run for lieutenant governor, setting his sights on senator, and was elected to the Senate in 1874, at the age of 34, only seven years after he moved to Mississippi.

Bruce used his position to defend the rights of blacks and other minorities. He also was active in gaining federal assistance to control Mississippi River flooding, and in creating the Mississippi River Commission in 1879.

During Bruce's last few years in office, the political involvement and voting power of blacks had been sharply curtailed, especially in Mississippi. Bruce realized he would not be reelected to the Senate, and accepted the post of registrar of the Treasury. His signature appeared on all currency printed during his two terms in the position.

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