Josephine Beall Willson Bruce

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Josephine Beall Willson Bruce
Josephine Beall Willson Bruce.jpg
BornOctober 29, 1853
DiedFebruary 15, 1923
ResidenceWashington, D.C.
OrganizationTuskegee University, National Association for the relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children, Atlanta Congress of Colored Women
Spouse(s)Blanche Bruce
ChildrenRoscoe Conkling Bruce
  • Joseph Willson (father)
  • Elizabeth Harnett Willson (mother)

Josephine Beall Willson Bruce (October 29, 1853 - February 15, 1923) was a women’s rights activist in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She spent a majority of her time working for the National Organization of Afro-American Women. She was a prominent socialite in Washington, D.C. throughout most of her life where she lived with her husband, Senator Blanche Bruce. In addition to these accomplishments, she was the first black teacher in the public school system in Cleveland, and she eventually became a highly regarded educator at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

Early life[edit]

Bruce was born in Philadelphia on October 29, 1853 to Dr. Joseph Willson and Elizabeth Harnett Willson, the first of five children for the pair.[1] Her family spent no more than a year in Philadelphia, moving to Cleveland in 1854. The family prioritized education and sent Bruce to Cleveland Central High School, where she graduated in 1871. After graduation, she took several teaching courses which then gave her the opportunity to teach at the Mayflower school, making her the first black teacher in the public school system of Cleveland.[2]

Personal life[edit]

In 1878 she married Blanche Bruce and traveled throughout Europe gaining culture and experience together.[3] Upon their return to the United States, they settled in Washington, D.C. in order for her husband to pursue a career in politics, while she became an activist. She dedicated her life to the National Organization of Afro-American Women (NACW), successfully running for the vice presidency of the organization in 1896. In 1898 her husband, Blanche K. Bruce passed away, leaving her a widow.[4] She was given the opportunity by Booker T. Washington to become the principal at his Tuskegee University from 1899- 1902. This opportunity gave her the ability to offer training to other school teachers as the institute itself was vocational.[5] Bruce’s scholarship inspired her son, Roscoe Bruce, to graduate from Harvard University in 1902, eventually allowing him to become the head of the academic department at Tuskegee University.[6] Bruce then moved to Mississippi for a short time to live with her family, only to return to Washington, D.C. to run for the presidency of NACW in 1906.


Bruce began her career as a teacher at Mayflower School in Cleveland, making her the first black teacher in the city’s public school system. Her positions at Mayflower School and at Tuskegee University allowed her to share her ideas and shape the minds of the youth around her. Outside of teaching, she dedicated her life to the National Organization of Afro-American Women (NACW), successfully running for the vice presidency of the organization in 1896. Despite having early successes with the organization she lost the election, which was attributed to her fair skin complexion. She became the editor of National Notes, which was owned by NACW. In these various writings, she discussed the impact and need for better education for colored women.[7] She continued to live in Washington, D.C. in the following years as a socialite, and eventually moved to West Virginia until her death. She was respected by many, but often failed to be accepted by black women as well as white women, as her light skin left her an outsider of both groups.[8] Bruce died at age of seventy in Kimball, West Virginia on April 15, 1923.[9]


  1. ^ "Bruce, Josephine Beall Willson (1853-1923) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". Retrieved 2018-01-30.
  2. ^ "Emerging Women Exhibit: The Contributors -> Josephine Beall Bruce". Retrieved 2018-01-30.
  3. ^ Gardner, Eric (January 2006). Bruce, Josephine Beall Willson : African American National Biography. Oxford University Pres. ISBN 9780195301731.
  4. ^ The Elite of Our People: Joseph WillsonÕs Sketches of Black Upper-Class Life in Antebellum Philadelphia. Penn State Press. ISBN 0271043024.
  5. ^ Hatch, Shari (2009). Encyclopedia of African-American Writing. Amenia, NY: Grey House Publishing. ISBN 1592372910.
  6. ^ Smith, Jessie (2003). Notable Black American Women. Gale. ISBN 0787664944.
  7. ^ "RootsWeb's WorldConnect Project: Our Family & Friends". Retrieved 2018-03-01.
  8. ^ Hobbs, Allyson (2014-10-13). A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674368101.
  9. ^ "A concerned citizen, Josephine Bruce - African American Registry". African American Registry. Retrieved 2018-03-01.