Blanche Kelso Bruce was born on March 1, 1841 in Farmville, Virginia to a slave mother and a white plantation owner. After being educated by his white half-brother, he escaped to Hannibal, Missouri in 1861, where he became a teacher. Bruce attended Oberlin College from 1866 to 1868, then became a farmer in Floreyville, Mississippi. By virtue of his excellent business acumen, he acquired substantial wealth and property, and was appointed conductor of elections for Tallahatchie County in 1869. Serving as sergeant-at-arms for the Mississippi state senate in 1870, he became assessor of Bolivar County in 1871. In 1872, Bruce became Bolivar County sheriff and obtained a seat on the Board of Levee Commissioners of the Mississippi River. In 1874, he was elected to the US Senate as a Mississippi Republican, the only African-American prior to the 1960s to serve a full term in the US Senate.
Elected near the end of the radical Reconstruction period, Bruce was a dignified, competent senator. Admired even by opponents for his integrity, pleasant personality and good humor; he was one of the relatively few politicians of the time who were never involved in scandal or corruption. His main efforts in the Senate were aimed at achieving civil rights, integration, elevation of his race. Opposed to vengeance measures against former slaveowners, he supported the reconciliation of American of different races. He spoke against Chinese exclusion and for the fair treatment of Native Americans as well as African-Americans. He also supported better navigation of the Mississippi River and the eradication of government corruption. Bruce retired from Congress in 1881, with the end of Reconstruction.
After leaving Congress, Bruce settled in Washington, D.C. and served as register of the Treasury from 1881 to 1885. Chair of the black exhibit at the World Cotton Exposition in New Orleans (1884-85), he was later appointed recorder of deeds of the District of Columbia (1889-95). Bruce was a popular public speaker and lecturer, and became a trustee of Howard University. President William McKinley appointed Bruce register of the Treasury again in 1895, a position he held until his death in Washington, D.C. on March 17, 1898.