42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2006
I have to be honest. I was ready to hate this book. When Graham wrote his first book, "Our Kind of People", the whole Jack&Jill/Martha's Vineyard/light-skinned/Howard alumni/my-Daddy-is-a doctor-crowd just came out of the woodwork. Everytime I turned around, people were giving me that book for a present. And Graham, with all his perfect black Ivy League credentials just nauseated me. But I have to say, the brother seems to just tell it like it is. He was fearless in "Our Kind of People" when he totally broke down and described the black elite in virtually every city---even explaining which Episcopal church, which debutante cotillion, which private day school and which neighborhood was the "right" choice for the uppity---er, I mean---upper class black families in each major city.
Graham's new book is like "Our Kind of People" on steroids. In "The Senator and The Socialite", Graham actually found a black family that epitomizes the black upperclass he talked about in his first book. Although this is a history book about the first black senator --a man named Blanch Bruce from Missisippi, the book reads like a novel. Almost like a movie. It's got everything in it. A former slave marries a light skinned free black woman. The couple becomes the richest black family in D.C. in the 1870s. They hang out with President Grant and Frederick Douglass. Their kids go to Harvard and Radcliffe and the daughter not only gets a law degree at Boston University, she becomes head of the law review. Graham is clearly fixated on high-living rich people because he even talks about how much money the Senator spends at Saks Fifth Avenue store in 1880-something. He's got details on the size of their houses (imagine, black folks who owned an 800 acre plantation, plus houses in D.C., Maryland and New York!!) I don't want to ruin the end for you, but the Bruce family had it all---then later loses it all. The Senator's son is hired by Booker T. Washington to be a spy while the son is still at Harvard, and then the son later gets to be superintendent of schools in D.C. Then later the Senator's granddaughter marries a black movie actor---who then later passes for white so that he can be in white movies too.
I can't believe I'm actually saying this, but it was great to read a book about us that wasn't just filled with a lot of poor downtrodden black folks. It seems that most stories of blacks during slavery and the 1800s are about poverty, death and failure. I'm sure those stories were the more common ones that really happened, but I'm glad that Graham (I still think he's a snob) found a more uplifting one that shows blacks at their best. The Bruces were a classy family with especially bright and accomplished black women (Josephine Bruce was Dean at Tuskegee Institute in the 1890s, and Clara Bruce was the first black woman to pass the bar in Massachusets--and she also was nominated for the State legislature in New York, from Harlem). In another time, the Bruces would be called the "Black Kennedys", and they would have gone even farther. Graham has come a long, long way since his first book, "Our Kind of People". This new book is an awesome piece of history, and I'm glad he wrote it.
39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2006
Mr. Otis Graham spins an engrossing tale about the rise of a former slave to become a millionaire and U.S. Senator, and the descent of his intended "dynasty" into destitution and petty crime. As equally fascinating as the family's personal story, is the national backdrop against which the drama is played out. This is the story of an entire black elite which could not relate to, and even disdained poorer and darker blacks but which could not gain the full acceptance it so desperately sought from upper class whites. It is the story of a time when black people had to try to navigate their way in a truly foreign America where race meant absolutely everything.
We are introduced to Blanche Bruce as a young slave, the son of a slave woman and her white owner. The author gives us some idea of the complexity and varieties of the slave experience, when he shows us a society where some slaves were permitted to read and write, became educated, had a fairly good relationship with their owners, acquired money and property, had aspirations and families, and were sometimes voluntarily freed by the people who owned them (and who were frequently related to them!) When we think of slavery we think of Simon Legrees, whips and chains. Those surely existed but the entire tapestry was a bit more variegated.
Therefore, with emancipation, Bruce was already prepared to succeed. By his natural talents, Bruce becomes a wealthy land owner and political figure in Mississippi. We read about a truly bizarre world in which people who were considered property only a short time before are running state governments, engaging in politics, publishing newspapers, starting businesses and trying to find a modus vivendi with a white America and, particularly a white Dixie, which couldn't believe what was happening. It was an America where a former slave could make it to the U.S. Senate, serving with former slave-owners and current segregationists, and actually find common ground and even mutual respect with them at times. It was a time when the wedding of Senator Bruce could be covered on the society pages of Northern newspapers while at the same time blacks were being literally massacred by the hundreds in the South. It was a time when lighter-skinned blacks often made the choice to try to pass as white, with sometimes disastrous consequences. This book paints a fascinating picture of a class and race-obsessed America, white and black, with all its nuances, politics, finely honed prejudices and individual tragedies.
One problem I had with the author was his irrational animus towards Booker T. Washington because of the emphasis of his Tuskegee Institute on practical training rather than a classical education, and for his lack of opposition to segregation. Instead of merely relaying and calmly interpreting facts, the author's obvious contempt for him as an appeaser, compromiser and Uncle Tom drips from the pages. Besides being unseemly in a professional historical work, I think it's a bit unfair to the man. Washington is criticized for his "concessions" and "compromises" with the segregation system. That's a false charge. Black America had no bargaining chips to concede or compromise. American society was in no mood to grant blacks completely equal rights in the early 1900s, although black Americans did enjoy significant freedoms, as the life of Blanche Bruce attests. Washington was simply facing facts and rightly emphasized black economic self-reliance and independence. As for his educational curriculum, what else besides practical, economically valuable skills would have been appropriate to teach to a destitute, disenfranchised and largely uneducated race? Sociology? Black Studies? Washington didn't disdain higher education and sent his own children to traditional colleges, but he recognized that practical training was the most valuable thing the mass of black people could have used at the time. (The same might be said for modern America, with its millions of psychology and feminist studies majors running around who would be better employed unclogging drains or building houses.) In "Up From Slavery", Booker bitterly recounts how the freed slaves would learn a few Latin or Hebrew phrases and expect that their economic prosperity was thereby ensured. I think Washington did his people a service and is unjustly condemned in this book.
The book has a few minor errors and the writing is clunky in a few spots, but otherwise it is a very educational and entertaining read that I highly recommend.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2006
The biography of the first black - a former slave - elected to a full term to the U.S. Senate and his wife, a socialite in black society, has so many levels:
It is a controversial political family, accused by many that the offices were used to consolidate power rather than assist those in need;
It is a family that seemingly rejects some relatives, as members who aren't "high enough" on the social ladder are hardly acknowledged;
It is a family whose progeny simply cannot maintain the financial and social standing set forth by an extraordinary (grand)father and (grand)mother.
The outstanding research by Lawrence Otis Graham brings to life the rise and fall of a family that has never received its due from the so-called history books in high schools and colleges.
After putting the book down you will appreciate the challenges and burdens surrounding the family and perhaps realize that some of the travils are roads you may have traveled, though perhaps to a lesser degree.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2006
THE SENATOR AND THE SOCIALITE proves that fact is indeed more fascinating than fiction. Fiction tends to lump blacks in the time period of the mid- to late-1800s, assuming the roles of slaves and the downtrodden. Fact shows us that there were families that thrived in roles other than those we commonly consider.
Blanche Bruce, the senator, was a slave for 23 years. While it might have been easy to allow a less than desirable beginning to hold him back, Blanche was made of sterner stuff. The son of a slave and a white master, he rose from slavery to become a landowner of an 800-acre plantation and a variety of rental properties. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1874. He gained appointments under no less than four presidents and was the first black man to have his name printed on U.S. currency. He also married a beautiful black woman from a prominent family.
Josephine Willson, the socialite from Philadelphia and daughter of a doctor, was a fitting companion for an ambitious man. She married the senator in 1878. Their society wedding in the Episcopal Church and four-month European honeymoon were only a sign of the good things yet to come. Josephine possessed a light complexion, a blessing when it came to being accepted by white Republicans and society and a curse when it came to the presidency of the National Council of Colored Women.
The senator and the socialite would become a powerful duo complementing each other perfectly and rising to great heights. This is the story of their humble beginnings and great accomplishments. The book is also peppered with an impressive number of names from America's past and interesting facts that shaped the history of our country.
This book is a fascinating history of a family who lived extraordinary lives very different from those of other black families during the same time period. It's an inspiring story of a family who used education, connections and confidence to rise to a level of stature not normally achieved by black members of society at that time. They didn't wait for opportunity to knock on their door; they made their own opportunities.
THE SENATOR AND THE SOCIALITE, while obviously a biographical work, contains every element one would want in a good work of fiction. There's fame and fortune, love and scandal. I highly recommend this book as both a good read and an inspirational story.
--- Reviewed by Amie Taylor
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2006
There have been a lot of rags to riches stories, but few who were born to a slave in pre-Civil War Mississippi. Mr. Bruce was able to ride the reconstructionist movement to become a Sheriff in Mississippi and eventually a United States Senator. He was the first black senator to serve a full term. He created a legacy that is now all but forgotten.
It can be argued that the time of reconstruction was a time that encouraged black participation in politics. None the less, with this start behind him, Mr. Bruce was able to continue this success beyond the reconstruction period, something few others were able to do.
Mr. Bruce was half white, and many of his descendents are light enough colored that they are considered white, all but denying their black ancestry.
This is a story of what one man did, and also a story of reconstruction itself. After Mr. Bruce's election, the actions of the KKK and the Democratic party in Mississippi effectively ended the reconstruction period.
This is a well told story about a little known part of our history.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2006
First of all you should know that The Senator and the Socialite reads like a novel as opposed to a history book. Those of you who would not normally venture into the non-fictional history section at your local library will enjoy this book as much as those who would.
What sets this book apart from others is that it gives a personal perspective to our nations first black senator that served a full term. The author did not pull any punches when he described some of the actions taken by the senator that were at the time seen as a betrayal to his own race. What tempered the book for me was the way the author described the political environment that the senator was faced with. This explained some of his actions and gave me a sense of empathy for him.
One side bonus to the book was the carefully researched description of how the upper middle class black felt for their less fortunate bretheren. It's shameful to say but some of these well to do blacks were as prejudiced against lower classed blacks as hostile anglos of the era. These upper class blacks dedicated their entire lives to proving that they were just as good as their white counterparts and in many cases they sacrificed their dignity in the process.
I would definitly recommend this book to anyone. It's an interesting read and you will find it difficult to put down at times.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2006
I consider myself to be a rather well-informed person, but I had not known that there was an African American Senator in the 1800s until I read an eye-opening review of Mr. Graham's new book in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. The review described Senator Blanche Bruce and his wife, Josephine, as an extraordinary and glamorous couple who lived a life of elegance in 1880s Washington, while also facing incredible racism from political leaders and others. Now that I have finished "The Senator and The Socialite", I can honestly say that it is one of the most fascinating books that I have read in the last ten years. The book tells the story of how Blanche Bruce, a slave born in 1841, rose from poverty to great wealth, and how he got elected to the U.S. Senate from Mississippi, and then gained appointments under 4 Presidents, married into a wealthy black family, and then raised two more generations of incredible African American children and grandchildren who went on to Phillips Exeter and Harvard, while working for amazing American icons like John D. Rockefeller and Booker T. Washington. Since I am not African American, I have no idea if most black Americans already knew the story of Senator Bruce, but the story of Blanche Bruce just seemed like the "all-American story" as the book follows the family from Virginia in the 1840s, to Mississippi in the 1860s, then to Washington where the Senator and his wife become like a "black power couple" in the 1880s, and then brings the family to New York in the 1920s when the next generation of the Bruces are embraced by the Rockefellers. The photographs in the book are also amazing---there are pictures of their Washington townhouses--and their Manhattan apartment---and even pictures of the kids and grandkids at Harvard --and a picture of a 50 dollar bill with Senator Bruce's signature because he was appointed to a Treasury Dept job by Presidnent Garfield that put his name on American money. I hate to sound foolish, but I never knew that there were African Americans that were this successful in the 1800s. The book's only real flaw is that it only seems to go up until the 1950s or 60s. It's obvious that the author spent lots of time researching this story--and he has tons of footnotes with great detail, but I got so caught up with all of the family members, and the many famous black and white icons that they interacted with (the book has a 10-page cast of characters at the beginning---and its really helpful), I just wished the author had found out where the family is now. The review in the Wall Street Journal says that some of the members of the Senator's family started passing for white in the 1960s, so I can only assume that the author wanted to keep the focus on the 120 or 130 years when the family was still a "rich black dynasty". This is a spectacular book, a great story, and as a former political science major, I can say that this book will give you a real education on Reconstruction, and a great understanding of how race and class played a role in the rise and fall of an incredible family.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
First of all this book delves into the true history of America's first black senator Blanche K. Bruce and his subsequent marriage to a notorious socialite and snob. Had this book been about a neavue-riche white faily, or Irish faily(the Kennedy's) the interest might end with the bigraphical sketch. However this book tries to chronicle the rise and fall of the American Black arisocracy and elite that emerged beggining in the mid to late 1800s and finally ollapsed sometime in the 1960s, not long after the advent of MLK and affirmitive action. In some ways there are other people who might be more interesting biographically, such as Booker T. Washington or Joe Frazer, but this book is not really about the interesting characters but rather exlaining the 'wasp rot' that set in with this up and coming dynasty and its rather quick and sharp demise.
Issues of race and class are central to this story, but perhaps it is more emblamatic of a time that hitherto we were told in America was only made up of white KKK members and blacks in poverty, rather than a more nuanced understanding of just how much there was was upward mobility for a small black elite, mirroring the upward mobility offered to Jews, Irish and Italians in the 1890s.
A very interesting and worthwhile book that examines a part of American society, that Oak Bluffs society, that is so often overlooked in our national history.
Seth J. Frantzman
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2007
Senator Bruce's great granddaughter passed away recently. She was a science teacher for most of her career, and her brother is a lawyer who's still living. Her husband was a dentist, and her children all have solid careers in law, teaching, medicine, etc. Mentioned somewhere in her death notice is her great grandfather, the Senator. Does the family care about their ancestor? If I were in their shoes, I wonder if I would.
Blanche Bruce was born a slave and became a Senator, and later had a position in the US Treasury, becoming a powerful figure among the Black upper class. His son Roscoe went to an Ivy League school, and like his father, lived among the elite. By age 50 his family was poor, his ner-do-well son had ended up in jail, and public welfare was their income. The snobbish Roscoe Bruce Sr spent his life trying to be the creme de la creme of Black America, and when he found himself waiting in lines, he had no friends of either color. Maybe the Bruce family were victims of the "American Dream?" Roscoe Bruce's sole quest seems to have been social climbing, but not upward mobility, because the upwardly mobile are motivated by survival. Roscoe's goal was to be among the non-equals, and move among the elite circles.
Expensive schools were a big expense of the family, and that was part of their downfall. In the early 1900's, you only went to college to be one of the following; teacher, minister, physician, or lawyer. Rarely did anyone get a "liberal arts" degree without something lucrative in mind. You didn't go to college to major in drama, theatre, film studies, cooking, or fine arts. College was for career-minded people (if only today's student loan indebted students would learn.) Blanche Bruce didn't intend to be a teacher, minister, physician, or lawyer; his goal was to simply graduate from a top school so he could be in the upper caste. He then got a job with the Tuskeegee Institute (and messed up) then because head of the Washington D.C colored schools, and demonstrated lethal incompetence (the kind that would get him thrown in jail today.) He wasn't a skilled worker, like Booker T. Washington, who started as a bricklayer, nor like W.E.B. Du Boise, who was a PhD and a tireless researcher (come to think of it, both Washington and Du Boise were workaholics in their chosen fields.) Bruce was just a snooty rich kid.
This is a depressing story, but I give it 5 stars because there's a lesson in it. Bruce's descendants didn't become Senators, and they're not mentioned in the "society" pages. They're just ordinary Americans with jobs. The kind of people that work and pay their bills. I recently met someone in NY who's descended from the English royal family (her great grandfather was King George V) and when I asked, she said she's never met her royal cousins. Her father married without formal permission, and she doesn't get any titles or money from it. But she didn't care; she had a good job anyway.
Few of Senator Bruce's descendants showed up in Washington when his portrait was unveiled. But I'm not surprised. Those of us with careers don't waste our vacation days trying to prove we're of "famous blood."
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2006
The Senator and the Socialite:... is the story of Reconstruction Senator from Mississippi Blanche Bruce.
Although an excellect book about Reconstruction and how an ambitious former slave could posper and become a Plantation owner himself and game the corrupt political system to become a U.S. Senator, the real story here is about black society, skin color and how one family managed to thrive in it. At least for a couple of generations.
This book is an excellent read along with "Redemption" by Nicholas Leman.