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The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty Hardcover – June 27, 2006

4.5 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Buried within this account of a black family that includes "a United States senator; a bank president; [and] a Washington socialite" is a rags to riches to welfare tale that ought to intrigue, but merely bores. Slave-born Blanche K. Bruce (1841–1898) was the first African-American to serve a full term in the United State Senate (1874–1880). Having obtained wealth in addition to political clout in Mississippi, he acquired elite class status through his marriage to Josephine Willson, daughter of a wealthy dentist whose freeborn roots extended back to the late 18th century. The first half of this repetitious family biography focuses largely on Bruce's political life, the second on his son Roscoe, who after a stint at Tuskegee returns to Washington as superintendent of "Colored Schools." The family spirals through a decline that finds Roscoe managing an apartment complex in Harlem and his sons jailed for fraud. In tracing the fortunes of the clan, Graham (Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class) allows an absorption with class status to obscure fresher areas, such as Blanche Bruce's involvement in the serious work of the black women's club movement. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

In 1878, the Times ran its first wedding announcement for a black couple: Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, a former slave who entered the Senate in the fading days of Reconstruction (many newspapers ignored his election, assuming that he would never be seated), and Josephine Willson, a daughter of the light-skinned black élite. The Bruces established what the author calls America's first black dynasty, although its members "lived much of their lives outside of black circles." Graham, whose "Our Kind of People" profiled the black upper class, recovers the history of a family that broke barriers in Washington and at Exeter and Harvard. At the same time, he offers a devastating view of the compromises it made. The Bruces' son was an "intellectual dandy" and snob who described a black revival meeting as "a reversion into barbarism." When the family, "after years of favoring . . . white acquaintances" over "accomplished black men," was engulfed in scandal, it found that it had few allies in either community.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (June 27, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060184124
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060184124
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #197,667 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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