Oscar Stanton De Priest: The First Black Congressman of the 20th Century

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Black History Month is about to come to an end, and I don’t want to miss out on making a related post for February, so here it is.

In 1900, North Carolina Congressman George H. White called it quits when the Democratic State Legislature disenfranchised the black population of the state. White’s departure constituted the end of an era, which started during Reconstruction, in which black Republicans could hold some measure of political power from the South and get elected to Congress. These states had adopted Jim Crow constitutions that aimed to disenfranchise as many blacks as possible while letting as many whites vote as possible. In his final speech before Congress, White stated that although this was a farewell for blacks from Congress, that it would be a temporary one. This farewell would last 28 years, and no black person would be elected from the South until 1972.

Illinois’ 1st district was a reliably Republican area in 1928 given the continued loyalty of black voters to the Republican Party. The district’s black population had grown to a majority and they had as their representative an unthinkable fellow today: Martin B. Madden, the conservative chair of the House Appropriations Committee. However, 1928 would be a year of change in more than a few ways: Madden died and Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson, eager to court the black vote, greenlit Oscar Stanton De Priest (1871-1951) running for Congress. He had previously served as Chicago’s first black alderman from 1915 to 1917, when he resigned after he had been accused of accepting money from a gambling establishment. De Priest retained the great Clarence Darrow as his attorney in the case, and was acquitted. He won election by a plurality to Congress and was seated in 1929 despite Southern Democratic efforts to block it. Their efforts had been thwarted by Speaker Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio), who swore all members of the House in simultaneously. De Priest was not only the first black person to be elected to Congress in the 20th Century, but also the first to be elected from the North. His election was the eventual product of the great migration out of the South of blacks who were tired of being treated as second class citizens or worse under the Jim Crow system.

De Priest made headlines soon after his election when his wife, Jessie, was invited to tea by First Lady Lou Hoover, which was attended by a small group of Congressional wives who were known ahead of time to be racially tolerant. Southern newspapers blasted her attendance, as it sent a message of equality. De Priest responded forcefully, charging that the reaction by Southern Democrats was part of an effort to bring back Southern states that had voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928 and added, “I want to thank the Democrats of the south for one thing. They were so barbaric they drove my parents to the north. If it had not been for that I wouldn’t be in Congress today. I’ve been Jim Crowed, segregated, persecuted, and I think I know how best the Negro can put a stop to being imposed upon. It is through the ballot, through organization, through eternally fighting for his rights” (Stokes-Hammond). If it wasn’t clear already, De Priest himself was not a slouch or an “Uncle Tom” on civil rights. Although he fought to desegregate the House diner and managed to get a resolution passed in 1934 to form a committee to investigate its practices, he was unsuccessful as the committee’s Democrats voted to maintain the status quo. De Priest also pushed for anti-lynching legislation, a bill permitting a transfer of jurisdiction of a defendant believed they couldn’t get a fair trial on account of their race or religion (a response to the Scottsboro rape case), and in 1933 managed to attach an amendment to the bill establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps that banned racial discrimination. He delivered speeches in the South despite death threats and once told an Alabama senator (almost certainly Tom Heflin) he wasn’t big enough to stop him from eating in the Senate restaurant. De Priest spoke of injustices blacks faced in the criminal justice system in Congress, stating “I am making these remarks because I want you to know that the American Negro is not satisfied with the treatment he receives in America, and I know of no forum where I can better present the matter than the floor of Congress” (U.S. House of Representatives). However, he encountered criticism among civil rights activists for his opposition to the New Deal, which he denounced as “socialist” and advocated for state and local relief instead of federal. De Priest also called for the investigation of the Communist Party and its efforts to recruit disgruntled urban voters. Overall, ideologically he was a moderate conservative.

De Priest’s opposition to the New Deal would cost him reelection in 1934 in a district that was shifting allegiances, losing to his former protégé, Arthur W. Mitchell, who had switched parties. The district has remained Democratic ever since. De Priest’s loss of reelection portended the black vote going to FDR in the 1936 election and to Democrats thereafter. De Priest would subsequently serve on the Chicago City Council from 1943 until his defeat in 1947. He would meet his end in 1951 as a result of injuries from being accidentally struck by a bus. De Priest represented a first step for blacks in the United States in the 20th century, but his failure to follow the majority of them into the Democratic Party rendered him out of date.

References

DE PRIEST, Oscar Stanton. U.S. House of Representatives.

Retrieved from

https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/D/DE-PRIEST,-Oscar-Stanton-(D000263)/

Stokes-Hammond, S. Pathbreakers: Oscar Stanton DePriest and Jessie L. Williams DePriest.  The White House Historical Association.

Retrieved from

https://www.whitehousehistory.org/pathbreakers-oscar-stanton-depriest-and-jessie-l-williams-depriest

 

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