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Ad Astra: Black uncle, nephew had big impact in Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, at 8:14 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, June 22, 2014, at 1:22 p.m.


Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

In the late 19th century, two African-American men – an uncle and his nephew – had an impact on Kansas’ diverse legacy.

In 1841, Blanche Kelso Bruce was born a slave in Prince Edward County, Va. In time, he would become a free man, amass a fortune, become a senator and advocate that former slaves move to Kansas.

He favored Kansas because, while still a slave, he escaped to Kansas during the Civil War to enlist in the Union Army, according to the United States Representatives History, Art and Archives website. He wasn’t accepted into the Army and for a brief time taught school in Lawrence before moving on.

His nephew, named Blanche Katene Bruce, became nationally recognized in military circles as a teacher of men. Of the 1,800 men that he taught as prospective candidates for West Point and Annapolis, only three failed to get in. In 1885, he became the University of Kansas’ first black graduate. He received his master’s degree in education there in 1891 and then was appointed the principal of Sumner School in Leavenworth for 54 years.

The elder Blanche Bruce moved to Mississippi in 1869. A few years later, he began serving in political positions, including becoming the first African-American to be elected to a full Senate term in 1874 and becoming the first African-American to serve a full term in the Senate, according to the U.S. Senate’s website. During Reconstruction, when the Ku Klux Klan was beginning to get a toehold in the Deep South, Sen. Bruce began advocating for rights for African-Americans, American Indians and Chinese immigrants.

He died in 1898.

It is estimated that between 1875 and 1881, 60,000 African-Americans headed to Kansas and other Midwestern states from the South, according to the book “Black America 2 Volume Set: A State by State Historical Encyclopedia.” And Kansas Gov. John St. John helped establish the Kansas Freedman’s Relief Association to help provide some relief to the destitute former slaves. The group helped establish African-American settlements across Kansas.

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave from Tennessee, is noted for fueling the exodus of “Exodusters,” the name given to these former slaves. Although there were more than half a dozen African-American settlements in Kansas, only Nicodemus – on the eastern border of Graham County – remains. It is also the only remaining such settlement west of the Mississippi.

The younger Bruce was an editor of the Leavenworth Advocate when, in July 1892, he received the Republican nomination for state auditor, a race he later lost. He continued as a teacher of English, mathematics, history and geography. He died in 1952.

In 1981, the University of Kansas established the Bruce-Smith awards, which honor the school’s first black graduate and first black student. That student, Lizzie Ann Smith, was admitted to the school in 1876. The scholarships are presented each year to an incoming freshman and continuing student.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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