Wednesday, February 20, 2008

America's First Black Socialite

Although Washington, DC and other cities had several leaders of Black Society, no other Socialite garnered more press and community interest than Josephine Beall Willson Bruce. Her clothing, elegance, and style were consistently covered in a series of Black newspapers around the country and the Washington Post as the Bruce household was the epicenter of Black Society. I first learned about this dynamic woman as an undergraduate and celebrate her legacy in this posting.

Josephine Beall Willson Bruce was born on October 29, 1853 to a prominent Philadelphia Dentist and author Dr. Joseph Wilson and his wife, Elizabeth Harnett Willson, a classical musician and singer. Dr. Willson penned Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society in Philadelphia which was published in 1841. It was the first work of its kind to chronicle the lifestyle and activities of the Black Social Elite.

The Willson family moved to Cleveland when Josephine was a year old and she graduated from Cleveland High School. She served as a teacher in the city’s public school system. Around 1876, Josephine met the handsome and dashing Republican Senator Blanche Bruce of Mississippi around 1876. Although he was born into slavery Blanche Bruce was proud of being self educated with impeccable manners.

The young couple was married on June 24, 1878 in the home of Dr. Willson. Sixty guests attended in ‘full dress’ to witness the stunning bride in a white silk gown created by a New York designer. The Bruces departed on June 27, 1878 on a four month European honeymoon where Josephine shopped in exclusive boutiques for her wardrobe. The Bruces’ only son – Roscoe Conkling – was born in 1879.

Josephine firmly believed that it is the responsibility of the educated to uplift the entire race. She became a charter member of the Colored Women’s League of Washington, DC in 1892 and two years later, assisted in organizing the National Federation of Afro-American Women. The two organizations eventually merged to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Josephine was elected as National Vice President of NACW where she worked alongside of ‘heavy hitters’ in the Black political and social arenas including Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Harriet Tubman, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell. Two years later, Senator Blanche Bruce died.

Josephine accepted the position as ‘lady principal’ (a.k.a. Dean of Women) at Tuskegee Institute shortly after Blanche Bruce’s death. She remained in the role for two years. Josephine wrote several Black feminist articles for publications of the NAACP and edited the national publication for NACW. Unfortunately, Josephine Bruce was rejected by a large group of the delegates in her bid to become National President of NACW in 1906 due to her skin color.

One delegate was quoted in the Indianapolis Freeman as saying “We prefer a woman who is altogether Negro because while the lighter women have been the greatest leaders and are among the most brilliant in the Association, their cleverness and ability is attributed to their white blood. We want to demonstrate that African is as talented.”

Shattered and heartbroken by this defeat, Josephine scaled back her participation in NACW. She remained an active lobbyist for the rights of Black women until her death in 1923.

Source: Aristocrats of Color - The Black Elite: 1800-1920 by Willard B. Gatewood.