Bruce was the first African-American elected to the Senate to serve a full term (1874 – 1880). He tells his story in this 1886 newspaper interview:
Reminiscences. of the Kansas Life of Ex-Senator B. K. Bruce.
HIS ESCAPE FROM QUANTRELL.
A Number of Chatty Anecdotes Related by Him to an “Alta” Correspondent . . . .
Special Correspondence of the Alta California.
Washington, October 11, 1886.— Some half dozen old-time Kansans chanced to gather together a few evenings since at one of the leading Washington hotels, and the conversation naturally drifted into reminiscences of the “Kaw” State in the early days, and the array of men more or less renowned, dead and alive, who had cast their fortunes in that then remote quarter of Western civilization. Two of these gentlemen were living at Lawrence when the guerilla [sic] chief Quantrell [sic] plundered that town and murdered several hundred people. After giving a vivid description of the attack and massacre, and narrating how they narrowly escaped death, one of the gentlemen casually remarked that Ex-Senator and Ex-Register of the Treasury Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi was a citizen of Lawrence at that time, engaged In teaching a colored school. Meeting Mr. Bruce on Pennsylvania avenue shortly thereafter your correspondent ventured to ask him if this was correct, and if so how he came to be in Kansas at that period.
THE SACKING OF LAWRENCE.
“Yes,” replied the ex-Senator from Mississippi, “I was in Lawrence when Quantrell sacked the town and butchered so many people, and my life was saved by a miracle. Quantrell’s band certainly would not have spared any colored man. I was born in Virginia, and taken, while a slave, to Mississippi when a mere lad. From there I went to St. Louis, Missouri, and after the firing on Fort Sumpter and the opening of the War of the Rebellion, concluded I would emancipate myself. So I worked my way to Kansas and became a free man before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln.
“I had, fortunately, managed to pick up something of an education during the period of my slavery, and finally settled down at Lawrence as a school teacher. The night before the Quantrell raid, I had been watching and nursing a sick friend, and when the day broke I heard firing, which indicated that trouble was brewing. Looking out the window I saw armed men riding by, firing their pistols, and immediately realized that the enemy was upon us. To remain with my sick friend would have been to invite certain death, so I bade him adieu, and with no clothing on my person but shirt and drawers, watched my opportunity, got out of the house and hid in the bushes behind a fence.
A NARROW ESCAPE
“I saw the fighting going on, and the rebs rode by without discovering me, although they pursued every man in sight. At last I had a clear field, ran down to the Kaw river as fast as I could, and jumped in. My flight was observed, and several armed men rode furiously toward me. Fortunately, keeping my head under water, I managed to hide beneath a hedge of vines and roots near by the shore. The troopers rode to the river and searched everywhere without discovering my retreat, although they came within a few feet of me a dozen times. Finally they rode away, and I remained I concealed in the river all day and did not emerge from my harbor of safety until after nightfall, when the town had been sacked and burned, and the guerillas [sic] hastily evacuated with their loot.
“General Jim Lane was at Lawrence at the time, and he, too, miraculously escaped. He subsequently followed Quantrell’s men away down into Missouri, and when he returned, Lane said he had managed to kill quite as many of the guerillas as they Had killed of our people. I asked him how he knew that those he killed were Quantrell’s men, to which inquiry he grimly replied that he felt certain of it, because going down his troops killed every man they met with new clothes on, and coming back they killed all they saw with old clothes on, so that no mistake could have been made in this particular. I did not, as is generally supposed, live in Mississippi during the war. I returned there after the war ended, and entered the arena of politics. I was elected and served two terms as Sheriff of my county before I was chosen a Senator in Congress.
A SENATOR’S MAIDEN SPEECH.
“By-the-bye,” continued Mr. Bruce, “at my first canvass for sheriff, my Democratic opponent, who was a man of considerable force as a public speaker, challenged me to meet him in debate. I was reluctant to do so, especially in view of the fact that, as the county was largely Republican, my election was assured, and, therefore, nothing was to be gained thereby. But, being pressed to accept the offer, we agreed to divide time at a meeting in a precinct where the Democrats were largely in the majority. After eloquently narrating his services to the Democratic party, his participation in the war of the Rebellion, and the sacrifices he had made for and shared with the people, my competitor said he had nothing against me — that I was a decent man, for my color, but that he knew me when I was a boy, that I had been a slave and performed menial offices, and therefore was unfitted to fill the high office of Sheriff.
“I hardly knew how to meet this logic and divert its force, considering existing prejudices. The only method seemingly open to me was to try to turn the laugh on my adversary, and fortunately I succeeded. When my turn came to speak I frankly admitted that I had been a slave, but it was a misfortune for which I was not responsible! True, as a slave I had been compelled to perform menial offices, but I had served my master honestly and faithfully. Now, however, I had managed to rise to a better position. I had outgrown the degradation and ignorance of slavery, and was now a free man and a good citizen; but the difference between my adversary and myself was clear and well-defined. Had he been a slave and performed menial offices, probably he never could have risen superior to his original condition, and would be performing menial offices even now. This sally was so well received by my opponents that my competitor never invited me thereafter to debate jointly and divide time with him.
“A SINGULAR INCIDENT, worth relating, occurred when I was a member of the Senate. I had never exchanged a word with Mr. Bogy, then a Senator from Missouri. We knew each other merely by sight. One day, to my surprise, Senator Bogy came to my desk and explained that he was much interested in the passage of a certain bill. There was nothing in it of a political nature, and he invoked my active assistance to help him pass the measure. He did not then realize that we had ever met before, but I well remembered the circumstance. I listened to his statement, and then replied about as follows :
‘It will afford me pleasure, Senator, to oblige you in any way, but really, you used me so shamefully in the last business transaction we had together, I am suspicious of you.’
‘Why, sir, what do you mean?’ excitedly replied the Missouri Senator, ‘we have never met before that I can recollect, and certainly have never had any business transactions together of any character.’
‘Let me see, I replied, ‘whether I cannot recall a certain transaction to your memory. Some twenty years ago a gentleman was hurrying through the streets of St. Louis one day, endeavoring to catch and board a river steamer. He was embarrassed with a heavy valise, and noticing a colored boy near by, asked if he did not want to earn a quarter. The boy replied affirmatively, and the valise was handed him to carry. The gentleman and the colored boy ran to the river together, and the gentleman jumped on board the boat just as the gang-plank was being drawn in. He halloed to the boy to throw the valise on board, but the boy halloed back to first give him the promised quarter. This the gentleman refused to do, and the result was the boat, which had drifted far out into the stream, was put again to shore. The gentleman, thereupon, somewhat unwillingly, handed out the quarter, and the boy gave up the valise, not, however, without escaping a round denunciation and fist-shaking from the angry gentleman, in which the words ‘black rascal’ were freely uttered in terms more forcible than polite.’
‘Yes,’ replied Senator Bogy, ‘I remember the incident as well as if it had occurred yesterday. I was the gentleman, and we had quite a scene of it. But what has that do with any business transaction between us?’
‘Very much!’ I replied laughingly, ‘since you were the gentleman and I was the colored boy whom you endeavored, while in haste to catch the boat, to beat out of a quarter of a dollar he had fairly, earned.’ Senator Bogy laughed heartily at the reminiscence, and we shook hands. I helped him pass his bill just to demonstrate that strange things frequently happen in this world, and that I bore him no malice. Who could have foreseen that the irate gentleman and the colored slave boy would have met years afterward as peers and colleagues in the Senate of the United States!”
A COLORED LECTURER.
Mr. Bruce is now engaged exclusively in the lecture field, which he finds more profitable and certainly quite as congenial as holding public office. He states he is out of politics until 1888, when he will probably take the stump for the Republican Presidential nominee. Mr. Bruce is in his forty-sixth year, is reasonably portly and has quite a taking presence. His color is light, and it is the tradition that he is the offspring of one of the most distinguished of Virginia’s sons. He is studiously polite, well-poised, and of unobtrusive habit. As a consequence, he merits and receives universal esteem. He owns a large and well-cultivated plantation in Mississippi, and his wealth is estimated at nearly one hundred thousand dollars. Several ladies of the best Mississippi families, who were impoverished by the war, now hold clerical positions in the several departments through Mr. Bruce’s intercession while a Senator.
—Daily Alta California, Volume 41, Number 13563, 18 October 1886