Social Washington: the “Colored” Aristocracy

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, United States on 2012-11-11 01:32Z by Steven

Social Washington: the “Colored” Aristocracy

Edwardian Promenade

Evangeline Holland

From the end of Reconstruction until the Great War, Washington was the center of the black aristocracy. Nowhere else in the United States possessed such a concentration of “old families,” not merely from the District and nearby Maryland and Virginia, but from throughout the country, whose emphasis on family background, good breeding, occupation, respectability, and color bound them into an exclusive, elite group. Upper-class blacks from Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans and other places gravitated to Washington D.C. in sizable numbers due to its educational and cultural opportunities, the availability of jobs on par with their education, and the presence of a black social group that shared their values, tastes and self-perceptions.
The “black 400” of Washington consisted of fewer than a hundred families out of a black population of 75,000 in 1900, and centered around the family of Blanche K. Bruce, an ex-slave and former Mississippi Senator who served in Congress from 1875 to 1881, who was also the first Black American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. Bruce was born in Virginia to a black woman and a white man, who may have been their master. Fortunately, his slave master took an interest in Bruce and he was permitted to share lessons with the master’s son. In later years, Bruce shared that his life as a slave in Virginia, and later in Mississippi and Missouri, was in fact no different from that of his white peers. In 1850, Bruce moved to Missouri after becoming a printer’s apprentice and from there he escaped to Kansas and declared his freedom. After the Union Army rejected his application to fight in the Civil War, Bruce taught school and attended Oberlin College in Ohio for two years and from there, he went to work as a steamboat porter on the Mississippi River. In 1864, he moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where he established a school for blacks…

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