Josephine Beall Willson Bruce

Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Josephine Beall Willson Bruce, 1853-1923

By kYmberly Keeton, M.L.S.

Josephine Beall Willson was born in Philadelphia on October 19, 1853, to Dr. Joseph Willson and Elizabeth Harnett Willson; she was the first of five children for the couple. Joseph was a respected dentist, and Elizabeth was a talented singer and musician. Both parents believed that education was the key to success and upward mobility. The family lived in Philadelphia for one year, and then moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Josephine excelled in linguistics, literature, and classical music.

After graduating from Cleveland's Central High School in 1871, Josephine Beall Willson enrolled in a teacher's training course and accepted a faculty position at the Mayflower School. The young educator was the first African American appointed in the Cleveland, Ohio public school system. On June 24, 1878, Josephine married U.S. Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, from Mississippi, an entrepreneur, lecturer, senator, and the first African American to serve a full term in the United States Senate. The newly wedded couple traveled extensively throughout Europe before making "Hillside Cottage," a suburb of Washington, D.C., their home. The couple had their only child in 1879, Roscoe Conkling Bruce.

Willson Bruce, now married and a mother, entered into society life and found her passion for organizing meeting spaces for women of color. Though revered in the community, many believed the pair was not socially conscious about their race. Willson Bruce accepted the call in 1882 to lead as Vice-President of the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children and President of the Booklover's Club. Her persistence for the inclusion of African American women's voices on a national platform continued throughout her life as a suffragist despite public opinion.

Mrs. Willson Bruce accepted the call to lead as President in 1895 of the Atlanta Congress of Colored Women. Their mission was to create a platform for social progress for African Americans, create spaces for conversations about unity and civil rights, as well as designing ways of telling the history, future, and needs of Black people in the 20th century. The influential leader helped found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). In 1895, at the Convention of the National Association of Colored Women, Josephine Beall Willson Bruce became the first woman to present a resolution to establish the observance of Negro History Day.

In 1898, Blanche K. Bruce died. Willson Bruce accepted an offer from Booker T. Washington to lead as lady principal of Tuskegee Institute from 1899-1902. After her tenure at Tuskegee, Willson Bruce moved back to Mississippi to take care of her family's cotton plantation. She then returned to Washington D.C., in 1906 to continue her work as a social advocate for change. Josephine Beall Willson Bruce spent her last days in Kimball, West Virginia, and passed away on February 15, 1923, at the age of seventy.


Black Past Remembered. (n.d.). Bruce, Josephine Beall Willson (1853-1923) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. Retrieved from

Decker, E., & Google Arts & Culture. (n.d.). Josephine Beall Willson Bruce (1853-1923) - E. Decker - Google Arts & Culture. Retrieved from

The Emergence Community Artists Collective. (n.d.). Emerging Women Exhibit: The Contributors - Josephine Beall Bruce. Retrieved from

The Emergence Community Artists Collective. (n.d.). Emerging Women Exhibit: The Contributors - Josephine Beall Bruce. Retrieved from


Josephine Beall Willson Bruce

Retrieved from: bruce-1853-1923/KgH8Ew-90wJCpFile: Josephine Beall Willson
Bruce.jpg. (2018, February 21). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.


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