Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 4
John Edward Bruce is an important, although relatively unknown name in American history. A prominent journalist, historian and civil rights activist, Bruce is also recognised as a treasured Pan-African thinker.
As a journalist, Bruce was a popular figure amongst contemporary black readers with a national and international audience. As a historian, Bruce was a vital force in popularising black history, leading and mentoring a community of self-trained black historians. As a civil rights activist, Bruce was instrumental in building reciprocal interactions across the late nineteenth century Pan-African network.
John Edward Bruce was born into slavery in Piscataway, Maryland, on 22 February 1856. As a child, Bruce saw firsthand the horrors of the auction block when his father was sold, never to be seen again. Fortunately for Bruce, his time in slavery was relatively short. With the American Civil War approaching, Bruce and his mother gained their freedom before settling in Washington when he was four years old.
Bruce's years in Washington were pivotal to his intellectual and social development. It was during this critical period of his life that Bruce pursued a career in journalism, confronted problems of class and colour within the black community, engaged with prominent Pan-African thinkers and became enthralled with the history and heritage of African Americans.
In 1874, at age eighteen, Bruce began his journalistic career. Over the next decade, he would write for no fewer than 24 newspapers, including international publications like the West African Record and the Jamaica Advocate. In 1880 Bruce founded the Sunday Item, the first Sunday paper published by an African American, and in 1884 he began writing under the widely-recognised moniker, Bruce Grit.
Over the years, Bruce's works acknowledged significant themes, including:
Colourism: Bruce grew up in late-nineteenth-century Washington, widely considered to be the 'Capital of Coloured Aristocracy'. The so-called 'coloured elite', many of whom traced their roots to free Negroes, privileged mulatto house servants, or families several generations removed from slavery, placed emphasis on 'good breeding', respectability and colour. This 'us' and 'them' attitude towards the black masses, compounded by condescension and hostility toward 'peasant freeman', was seen as a block to the progress of darker individuals. Bruce, a dark-skinned black man, believed that this coloured elite "wouldn't be caught dead with an ordinary Negro" and that their goal was ultimately "to become absorbed by the white race." Bruce went on to say that it was:
"... absurd that those who were actually the illegitimate progeny of the vicious white men of the South should attempt to pose as representatives of the better class of Negroes."
History: Throughout his career, Bruce also showed spirited esteem for black history. He believed that history was a powerful tool for intellectual liberation and black empowerment. Bruce approached history through his skills as a journalist, providing concise, well-researched nuggets of information. In 1910, Bruce published Short Biographical Sketches of Eminent Negro Men and Women, a book designed "to teach coloured children about coloured heroes." Bruce believed that black history could be used to inspire solidarity as well as redress prejudice and discrimination.
Bruce's advocacy for independent thought, self-reliance, race pride and solidarity can be seen in a 1917 speech:
"... you will endeavour individually and collectively to popularise the movement now taking form, and favouring the establishment, in all our Negro institutions of learning, of a chair of Negro history, so that the generations to come after us will know, because the textbooks written by white men have been and are woefully silent on the Negro's contribution to the general knowledge of the world... Our environment makes us think white, and some of us think white so persistently that we haven't time to think black. But to this complexion we must ultimately come, and I urge upon you gentlemen to help, with voice and pen, to hasten the coming of the morning when Negroes all over this broad land will wake up to the importance of thinking black."
Bruce Grit is remembered as an activist who fearlessly denounced white supremacy and advocated for intellectual self-reliance, economic independence and cultural contentment.