December 5, 2005
The life of John Edward Bruce was marked by perseverance and fortitude. Born a slave, Bruce rose from humble beginnings on a plantation in Piscataway, Maryland, to an adulthood in which he corresponded with friends and activists throughout Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, the Philippines, and Europe. While some found manumission by escaping or at the mercy of their masters, others never obtained complete liberation from slavery because they had internalized beliefs of their racial inferiority. For Bruce, however, freedom lay in his pen. With this weapon, he railed against imperialism and slavery, writing searing articles and editorials for more than 100 newspapers worldwide. Championing the proponents of cultural nationalism, he was a stalwart race man who attacked Reconstruction, Jim Crowism, lynching, the vacillations of the Republican Party, and the accommodationist stance of Booker T. Washington. Due to his aggressive, matter-of-fact writing style, he affectionately became known as “Bruce Grit,” his most widely known pseudonym.
At three years of age, Bruce became fascinated with race. At that time, Bruce’s father, Robert Bruce, was sold to slave owners in Georgia. He was never to hear from or see his father again. His mother, Martha Bruce, then served as his sole caretaker. Martha, having agreed to provide her master, Major Thomas Harvey Griffin, with half of her earnings, worked as tavern cook at Fort Washington, approximately one mile from their plantation, and sold goods to U.S. Marines in exchange for their used clothes which she later stockpiled and sold as a part of a secondhand clothing business she operated. As the Civil War approached, Bruce witnessed countless numbers of his playmates and their families sold into slavery, a fate he dreaded. Martha feared the same, and in 1861, she and her children (Bruce’s brother died shortly thereafter) joined the band of Union soldiers, after the first battle of Bull Run, as they marched through Maryland to Washington, D.C. Based on these early memories, Bruce wrote a fictional account of a slave trade in 1916, entitled The Awakening of Hezekiah Jones: A Story Dealing with Some of the Problems Affecting the Political Rewards Due the Negro.
After three years in Washington, D.C., Martha moved her family to Stratford, Connecticut. There Bruce entered an integrated school and was first introduced to formal education. The family lived in Stratford briefly, returning to Washington after two years. In Washington, Bruce enrolled at the Free Library School and schools operated by the Freedman’s Aid Society and the Freedman’s Bureau. Although Bruce applied himself, these new schools afforded him only basic skills. In 1872, he took a three-month course at Howard University, but after the course, he never pursued formal education again. Thereafter, he relied primarily on informal means of schooling and was mostly self-taught.
Earns Prominence as Journalist
While Bruce wrote various pamphlets, poetry, plays, songbooks, essays, and several books over his career, he is best known for his work as a journalist. Living in Washington after the Civil War, where he earned odd jobs around the city to augment his mother’s income from her work at restaurants and as a domestic in private homes, Bruce met famous individuals who sparked his interests in culture and politics. These individuals included Charles Dickens, Martin R. Delany, and Henry Highland Garnet.
In 1874, when he was only eighteen years old, Bruce earned a job as a messenger for L. L. Crouse, associate editor at the New York Times Washington office and brother of the Nebraska governor. Bruce’s duties required that he obtain communications for the next day’s paper from Senator Charles Sumner, the author of the 1875 Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination in public facilities. In this capacity, Bruce developed a personal relationship with Sumner, who was regarded highly in the African American community, but Bruce was also able to speak with many members of Congress who visited Crouse’s office. Given this exposure, Bruce was hired in 1875 as a special Washington correspondent for the Progressive American in New York. His first article, titled “Distillation of Coal Tar,” was published under the pseudonym, “The Rising Sun.” Frederick Douglass was apparently so moved by Bruce’s writing that he made him a correspondent for the New National Era, where he assumed another pseudonym, “Caleb Quotem.” With these publications, Bruce’s writing career was effectively launched.
In the subsequent years, assuming the pseudonym “Bruce Grit,” Bruce contributed to dozens of newspapers, most notably the Weekly Argus and the Sunday Item, both of which he founded. Printed in 1879, the editors of the Weekly Argus, Bruce and Charles N. Otley, decided that the paper would “be a fearless advocate of the true principles of the Republican Party, and the moral and intellectual advancement of the Negro American,” according to William Seraille’s book, Bruce Grit: The Black Nationalist Writings of John Edward Bruce. The following year, in 1880, the Sunday Item became the first black-owned Sunday newspaper in the United States. Also of significance were Bruce’s contributions to the African Times and Orient Review, beginning in 1910, which detailed the heroism and valor of black, African, and West Indian troops in World War I. Printed in London, England, the periodical was edited by Duse Mohammed Ali.
Establishes Relationships with Activists
Bruce’s writings generated a considerable amount of interest from African American communities and the world. This interest spawned a host of relationships that proved influential to Bruce. A survey of his collected papers reveals that he maintained regular correspondence with Majola Agbebi, of Lagos, Nigeria; Liberian president C. D. B. King; Liberian Judge Dossen; J. R. Archer, first black mayor in Battersea, England; Kobina Sekyi of the Gold Coast; J. Robert Love of Jamaica; Henrietta Vinton Davis; Monroe Trotter; W. E. B. Du Bois; Alexander Crummell; Edward W. Blyden; and Paul Laurence Dunbar. In these lifelong relationships, Bruce was able to question and discuss the African’s position in the world with powerful thinkers.
Bruce’s relationship with Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest who lived in Liberia for almost twenty years before returning to the United States, proved to be especially significant. After returning to the United States due to illness, Crummell envisioned an institution of scholars who would be intent on eradicating the race problem through a coalition of black intellectuals who would study and document all aspects of the African race throughout the Diaspora. The result of his vision was the founding of the American Negro Academy with seventeen other scholars, clergy, and professionals in 1897. At Crummell’s request, Bruce was one of the founding members. Crummell was Bruce’s mentor, father-figure, and dear friend, guiding him through his published responses to Booker T. Washington’s integrationist solutions to the plight of Africans and various other arguments he asserted in his writing. A staunch supporter of racial pride, Crummell also encouraged Bruce to affirm the achievements of Africa in his writings. When Bruce considered composing a children’s book on African history, Crummell was most encouraging: “If you can do anything to increase the respect of our people for their own, you will be a benefactor to the race,” he said, as quoted by Seraille. When Crummell died in 1898, Bruce suffered a debilitating blow.
Bruce also worked with Arthur Schomburg and Marcus Garvey. His relationship with Schomburg, who was nearly twenty years his junior, was one of a surrogate father from which he promoted Schomburg’s bibliomania and his interest in freemasonry. Eventually they founded the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911, which was a product of their shared passion for acquiring books and artifacts revealing the contributions of the black race to world history. With Bruce’s guidance, Schomburg’s collections grew. They are housed in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, one of the largest collections of materials pertaining to African studies.
Later in life, Bruce realized that his lifelong hopes for the African race were succinctly articulated by Garvey. As a result, Bruce vowed his allegiance to the aims of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1919, writing a weekly column for Garvey’s The Negro World as well as defending Garvey from his critics.
Although John Edward Bruce was well known, his importance never reached the level of his contemporaries, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. One reason is that he refused to be connected to any white institution or to anyone who consciously sought an association with these institutions. Professionally, he never was able to sustain himself economically without relying on odd jobs, and on August 7, 1924 he died in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. When Bruce died, a pension from the Port Authority of New York was his only source of income. The UNIA, however, honored him with a state funeral that consisted of three services at the UNIA Liberty Hall in New York City on August 10, 1924. On that day, more than 5,000 people viewed his body. He was survived by his wife Florence (Bishop) Bruce, whom he married in 1895, and daughter Olive Bruce.
Crowder, Ralph L. John Edward Bruce: Politician, Journalist, and Self Trained Historian of the African Diaspora. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
Gilbert, Peter, ed. The Selected Writings of John Edward Bruce: Militant Black Journalist. New York: Arno Press, 1971.
Gruesser, John C, ed. The Black Sleuth. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.
Seraille, William. Bruce Grit: The Black Nationalist Writings of John Edward Bruce. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.
Beard, Richard L., and Cyril E. Zoerner. “Associated Negro Press: Its Founding, Ascendancy, and Demise.” Journalism Quarterly 46 (Spring 1969): 47-52.
Crowder, Ralph L. “John Edward Bruce, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Alexander Crummell, and J. Robert Love: Mentors, Patrons, and the Evolution of a Pan-African Network.”Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 20 (July 1996): 59-91.
Bruce’s papers are in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
Weathersby, Irvin, Jr. “Bruce, John Edward.” Notable Black American Men, Book II. Ed. Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit: Gale, 2007. 86-88.