Josephine Beall Bruce is most well known for her work as a college administrator, her presence in the black woman’s club movement, and her activities in Washington, D.C.’s social circle. Bruce was born in 1853 in Philadelphia, but was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. She was the oldest of five children born to the socially prominent Dr. Joseph Willson, who was a dentist and writer, and Elizabeth Harnett Willson a talented musician. The Willson’s were very keen on education, and it was expected that all their children would be educated, and would become teachers or enter a highly visible profession.
Bruce graduated from Cleveland’s Central High School in 1871, and after completing a teacher’s training course, she accepted a teaching position at the Mayflower School, and became the first black teacher in Cleveland’s public schools. On June 24, 1878, she married Blanche K. Bruce, a planter, entrepreneur, lecturer, and senator from Mississippi. Together they moved to Washington D.C., where they temporarily resided in “Hillside Cottage.” While in Washington the Bruces became a part of the Black elite where they were keenly interested in education. Josephine Bruce was one of the proponents of Booker T. Washington’s industrial education for the masses.
The Bruces were described as an attractive, polished, poised, and well-dressed couple. Josephine Bruce in particular was described has having Caucasian features because of her slim figure, brunette complexion, and her long and lightly wavy hair. It often been said that it was hard to detect Bruce’s black ancestry. In spite of their popularity, the Bruce’s were criticized for their “detachment from their race.”
While in Washington, Josephine Bruce held prominent positions in the social life of Washington’s Black elite and aided in a number of ventures to promote the welfare of African-Americans. From 1882-1885, Bruce was Vice-President of the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children. She had been president of the Booklovers Club, president of the Atlanta Congress of Colored Women in 1895, and helped organize the Colored Women’s League, with the purpose of identifying the social process of blacks, promoting unity among the race, and developing ways to promote the best interest of black people. In 1896 The Colored Women’s League and the Federation of Afro-American Women merged to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).
After the death of her husband in 1898, Bruce was given an offer by Booker T. Washington to become the lady principal of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where she served from 1899 to 1902. By 1901, Bruce was earning ninety dollars per month, which was the seventh highest pay offered by the Institute.
After leaving Tuskegee, Bruce went to Mississippi for a short
period to manage her family’s cotton plantation, but in
1906 returned to Washington D.C. with her son, who was to become
assistant-superintendent in charge of the district’s Black
schools. Back in Washington D.C., Bruce returned to her social
position in the city. Bruce spent the last few months of her life
in Kimball, West Virginia, and died on February 15, 1923, at the
age of seventy.