Blanche Kelso Bruce was born a slave on March 1, 1841 in Prince Edward County, Virginia, to Polly Bruce, an enslaved African-American woman who served as a domestic slave. Bruce father was most likely Pettus Perkinson, who was Polly’s master and son-in-law of her deceased previous master, Lemuel Bruce.
Growing up Bruce was force to work as servant to his half-brother William Perkinson. Unlike most slave children, he was afforded the advantage of learning to read and write. A few years after the Civil War started, Bruce ran away to Lawrence, Kansas and tried signing up for the Union Army, but his application was rejected. Near the end of the Civil War Bruce moved to Missouri in 1864, where he founded the first school for African Americans children in Hannibal.
According to some accounts, in 1866 Bruce attended Oberlin College in Ohio for two years, no records was found to support this theory. In 1868 he relocated to Mississippi and became a cotton farmer. Over time, Bruce would accumulate 640 acres of land and became a wealthy landowner in the Mississippi Delta.
One day in 1869 after hearing Mississippi gubernatorial candidate James L. Alcorn speak, Bruce decided to enter into politics. Bruce made is foray into politics in 1870, when Mississippi Senate elected him as sergeant-at-arms, then Sheriff and Tax Collector of Bolivar County in 1871. As Bolivar County Superintendent of Education, he started move schools for African Americans.
In February of 1874, Bruce was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate and served to 1881. Although he was the second black Senator, after fellow Mississippian Hiram Revels, he was the first to serve a full term (and the only former slave). When the Democrat gained control of the state in the same year he was elected, Bruce became increasingly isolated politically. Through the remainder of his term he supported freedman’s issues against the backdrop of Democratic rule of Mississippi.
On June 24, 1878, Bruce married Josephine Beall Willson (1853–February 15, 1923), a African American socialite of Cleveland, Ohio amid great publicity; the couple traveled to Europe for a four-month honeymoon.
Their only child, Roscoe Conkling Bruce was born in 1879.
While a senator, Bruce argued for levee systems and railroad construction, advocated political reform in federal elections, and spoke out for civil rights for blacks, Native Americans, and Chinese who were becoming a major labor force in the Delta region of the state.
After his Senate term ended Bruce was appointed to three posts by Republican Presidents. President James Garfield named him Register of the Treasury, a post he held until 1885. He served as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia between 1889 and 1893 under Benjamin Harrison. When William McKinley became president in 1897 Bruce was again appointed Register of the Treasury. Blanche Kelso Bruce died on March 17, 1898, in Washington D.C. while holding this office.