Bruce, John Edward

Bruce, John Edward (1856-1924), African American journalist, newspaper editor, and historian.

John Bruce was born in Piscataway, Maryland, on February 22, 1856. His father, Robert Bruce, and his mother, Martha Allen (Clark) Bruce, were slaves. When John was three years old, his father was sold and sent to Georgia; he was never heard from again. His mother's master, Major Harvey Griffin, let her cook and sell pies and coffee to the Marines Corps at nearby Fort Washington, aided by her own mother. She also set up a secondhand clothing trade with old clothes from members of the Marines. Her master received one-half of the money she earned.

As a child, John knew about the auction block for slave children, and he knew about slaves escaping to freedom or being liberated. John and his mother escaped slavery in 1860 by marching along with Union soldiers, from Maryland into Washington, D.C. His mother found her cousin Busie Patterson and worked as a household servant, and it was there John grew up. He attended a public school in Stratford, Connecticut, when his mother was there with a family employer. He had public and private instruction in Washington, D.C., including a three-month course at Howard University. But he was largely self-educated, for his formal education was minor.

In 1874 Bruce secured a job as a general helper in the New York Times Washington correspondent's office. The young journalist founded the Argus, a weekly newspaper in Washington, D.C., in 1879; the Sunday Item in 1880; and the Washington Grit in 1884. Bruce was editor of the Republican of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1882; assistant editor and business manager of the Commonwealth of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1884; and associate editor of Howard's American Magazine from 1896 to 1901. Around 1874 he began to write as a correspondent for African American newspapers. Over the years he wrote for more than 20 black papers, and many of his articles appeared in white newspapers such as the Boston Transcript, the Washington Evening Star, the New York Times, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the Buffalo Express, and the Sunday Republican of Washington, D.C. His articles appeared in several black publications in England, Jamaica, the West Indies, and in West and South Africa. "Bruce Grit" became his well-known column head in the Gazette of Cleveland and the New York Age in 1884. Around 1900 Bruce moved from Washington, D.C., to Albany, New York, and later to New York City and Yonkers. With Charles W. Anderson, he founded the Chronicle of New York City in 1897 and the Weekly Standard of Yonkers in 1908. He also edited the Masonic Quarterly in New York City.

Bruce married Lucy Pinkwood, a contralto, of Washington, D.C. They were childless, and she presumably died before his second marriage to Florence A. Bishop of Cleveland, Ohio, on September 10, 1895. There was one daughter from this union, Olive Bruce Miller of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and New York City, who died on January 20, 1943 and three grandchildren: Onnie K. Miller, Agnes B. Conway, and Edwin L. Miller of New York City.

Bruce was a popular speaker. He published two books: Short Biographical Sketches of Eminent Negro Men and Women in Europe and the United States (1910) and a work of fiction, The Awakening of Hezekiah Jones (1916). He also wrote many pamphlets, such as The Blot on the Escutcheon, Concentration of Energy, The Blood Red Record, The Making of a Race, A Tribute for the Negro Soldier, and Tracts for the People. The voluminous Bruce Papers in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, contain about 1,300 of his letters, articles, speeches, unpublished manuscripts, programs, and scrapbooks.

A brilliant militant writer for the black press on African American problems, personalities, and history for half a century, Bruce worked with journalist and New York Age editor T. Thomas Fortune in the Afro-American League and the Afro-American Council in the 1890s. With librarian and collector Arthur A. Schomburg and others, he organized the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911. Bruce emphasized separate economic development or self-help, race pride, and solidarity during this period of frequent lynchings and severe proscription of African Americans. But he also agitated for political and civil rights for blacks and hoped that opportunities for blacks to show patriotism in World War I (1914-1918) would usher in democracy, in the form of improved working and voting rights for them. Disillusioned by the many race riots and lynchings in 1919, after he had supported World War I, Bruce criticized, then zealously joined activist Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). As contributing editor, Bruce wrote columns for the Negro World and the Daily Negro Times, the association's newspapers. He looked to Africa as the rightful home of black people.

Bruce's writings did not always support him financially, so he worked for most of his adult life with the Port Authority of New York. He retired in 1922 and died on August 7, 1924, at Bellevue Hospital, New York City, at the age of 67. After he died, the UNIA held three memorial services for him. Funeral services were held on August 10 at Liberty Hall, 120 West 138th Street. Marcus Garvey gave one of the eulogies and furnished an honor guard. Services were conducted by representatives of Prince Hall, a branch of the Freemasons. Many of the mourners were delegates attending the Fourth Convention of Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Bruce's second wife, Florence, survived him. A book of selections from his writings was published in 1971, and renewed scholarly interest in Garvey has brought Bruce to the fore again. The John Edward Bruce Day Care Centers in Brooklyn, New York, were named for him in June 1972.

Material on Bruce may be found in The Selected Writings of John Edward Bruce, Militant Black Journalist (1971), edited by Peter Gilbert, and in Calendar of the Manuscripts in the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and History, compiled by the Historical Records Survey, Work Projects Administration, New York City (1942, 1970). More information is contained in The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (1891, pp. 344-7; 1969) by I. Garland Penn; Who's Who of the Colored Race (1915); the Negro World (August 16, 1924); and the New York Age (August 16, 1924). Also informative are Ralph L. Crowder's "John Edward Bruce: Pioneer Black Nationalist" (Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 2: 2, July 1978) and his "Self-Taught Street Scholars" (Black Collegian 9: 3, January-February 1979).

From Dictionary of American Negro Biography by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, editors. Copyright 1982 by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

 

Contributed By:

Ernest Kaiser