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.


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

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

Retrieved from



7 thoughts on “Oscar Stanton De Priest: The First Black Congressman of the 20th Century

  1. Hmm, interesting. So De Priest’s defeat in 1934 by Arthur W. Mitchell reflected the first realignment of the Northern black vote from Republican to Democrat not on the basis of civil rights, but economics. Unfortunately many people nowadays may not fully understand that blacks switching political alignment from Republican to Democrat happened largely in the 1930s due to the New Deal promising some degree of economic initiatives during the Great Depression, with much of the remaining GOP-aligned Northern blacks in the 1960s joining the newly enfranchised Southern blacks switching in the second phase (which, as you replied to an earlier post by me, was largely due to the symbolism set by Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in addition to Thurmond switching to become a Republican).

    Also, is there a retrievable roll call vote for De Priest’s amendment to the Civilian Conservation Corps which prohibited racial discrimination? I would be interested to see how the vote for that went based on party and region.

    1. I think the Black realignment was partially economics and partially civil rights. Obviously, Black voters (at least those who could vote at all) benefited from the New Deal because they were mostly poor, but Hoover had also alienated them (I’d recommend the book Hoover, Blacks, & lily-whites: a study of Southern strategies, by Don Lisio). It’s worth noting that, while the antilynching bill of the 1920s was sponsored by Republican Congressman Leonidas Dyer, the ones in the 30s were sponsored by Democrats Joseph Gavagan, Robert Wagner, and Edward Costigan. Northern and Western Democrats in general became way more pro-civil rights between 1915-35 because they represented a lot of immigrant voters who faced discrimination (obviously not nearly as bad as Jim Crow, but still some amount), hated Prohibition, and were worried about the KKK coming back. The North-South split is pretty evident in the 1924 DNC and in the fact that Hoover won some Southern states in 1928 against Al Smith.

      1. For the anti-lynching bills in 1937 and 1940, Republican support was nonetheless exceedingly strong in the House. The Gavagan-Wagner bill in 1937 got a Republican vote of 75-3, while the Gavagan-Fish bill in 1940 got a Republican vote of 140-8. For the latter, one of its sponsors, Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.), was one Roosevelt’s most hated foes. I see the reasons as primarily economic for this shift with the New Deal, but Hoover did have a knack for offending black voters, particularly with his failed nomination of John J. Parker to the Supreme Court as a reward for Southern Democrat support of his presidential campaign. Parker had in 1920 while campaigning for governor of North Carolina spoken of the “evils” of black political participation. He had also not responded to an NAACP letter asking whether he continued to hold such views.

        Hoover got a lot of Southern support in 1928 out of the contrast on his and Al Smith’s stances on Prohibition as well as Smith’s Catholicism, which many Democrats weren’t ready for yet. Senator Tom Heflin’s (D-Ala.) endorsement of Hoover in 1928 over Prohibition, Catholicism, and Tammany Hall helped him come within three points of winning the state. Hoover’s “Southern Strategy” was a failure in its day in large part due to the onset of the Depression, and Southern Republican gains in Congress wouldn’t begin again until the 1952 election.

      2. (relatively late response, though I’ve returned after a while in political purgatory, lol) Yeah, Mike has an excellent point about continued GOP support for anti-lynching legislation in 1937 and 1940. When it comes to the black political realignment, the first phase that resulted in around 60-75% (depending on the election cycle) voting Democratic really pertained to just Northern blacks, as their Southern counterparts were still suppressed from voting. The economic motivation for Northern blacks was probably the larger reason for switching to Democrat, especially as they faced less repression compared to Southern blacks.

        Now, the shift in civil rights in Northern politics is quite interesting, and evidently was impacted greatly by the New Deal. Previously in 1922, 59% of the Northern Democrats (and there weren’t that many, since most of the 1920s was a strong era for Republicanism) voted for the Dyer Bill; subsequently elected New Deal Democrats in the North were mostly elected from the same constituencies which supported the Republicans in the 1920s (and Northern Republican support for the Dyer Bill was at a solid 94% from my calculations with how I track Northern/Southern states), so it’s no surprise that most lacked antagonism towards civil rights. Of course, there was a disparity between the House and Senate; in the former, civil rights support was relatively solid, while not as much in the latter, where political trading, among numerous trickery, was prominent. When the Senate adjourned (on May 1, 1935, and by a 48-32 vote) and effectively kill the Costigan-Wagner Act in 1935, over half of the Northern Democratic senators sided with the Southern bloc in favor of the motion. (now, a larger percentage voted against the earlier adjourn motion on April 26, though the fact that many would be bought off by political trading and switch to supporting adjourning would go to demonstrate their lack of principled commitment in the first place)

        While you do bring up a fair general point, Anirudh, I would nonetheless say that it’s important to account for the fact that Republicans were a small minority in Congress during the 1930s, and thus the fact that the main sponsors of anti-lynching measures during the New Deal era were Democrats doesn’t mean the party as a whole, even when only taking the Northern faction into account, was fully in solid civil rights support. In the House, both the Gavagan-Wagner-Van Nuys and Gavagan-Fish Acts got slightly less support from Northern Democrats than Northern Republicans; in the Senate, Northern Democrats were considerably more divided; GOP leader Charles McNary noted, as recorded by the Congressional Record on 1/27/1938, that there were 77 Senate Democrats, and the failure to pass the 1937-38 bill was due to “the Democratic administration.”

        Oh, also, Western Democrats weren’t that committed on the civil rights issue as a bloc. Because of their old-school Jeffersonian tradition in resenting excessive centralized power (which later contributed to LBJ uniting a Western-Southern Democratic coalition behind the jury trial amendment which destroyed the CRA 1957), their elected senators probably weren’t especially solid on support for civil rights legislation. While I dunno their individual records on anti-lynching legislation, I did notice that most of them voted against either one or two of the motions in 1947 that denied the seating of Mississippi demagogue Bilbo, who nakedly incited white supremacist voter suppression.

  2. Yeah, the 1934 midterms were the start of it, although it looked like a possibility black voters could return after the 1956 election as a little less than 40% voted for Eisenhower given the civil rights gains that occurred during his first term. In fact, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem endorsed him for reelection as he thought the civil rights plank of the Republican platform was stronger than the Democratic one. I’m afraid the vote on the anti-discrimination amendment for the CCC was not a roll call, but there is one for the House restaurant investigation: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/73-2/h98

  3. Hey LT, good to hear from you again! I think there’s certainly some interesting elements among Western Democrats. Of those in the Senate who voted for the jury trial amendment, some had strong liberal reputations, like James E. Murray of Montana, who had previously sponsored a proposal creating the American version of Britain’s National Health Service. There were also pockets of opposition in the House from Western Democrats to anti-lynching measures in 1937 and 1940.

    1. Yeah, particularly when examining the vote on the 1940 Gavagan-Fish Act once more, I see a notable fraction of Western Democratic opposition. While few evidently opposed anti-lynching legislation on racial grounds (Compton I. White was prejudiced against minorities, as was Walter M. Pierce, who as indicated in pp. 409-10 in “The Paradox of Oregon’s Progressive Politics” opposed numerous federal civil rights and humanitarian efforts, including allowing Jewish refugees into the U.S.), there seemed to be a pattern of amorality – Caro’s assessment of Western Democratic senators in 1957 concerning the Hells Canyon-civil rights compromise seems to note its ranks (if I recall reading correctly), particularly rising star Frank Church, as lacking antiblack racism yet also in lack of sensitive concern on the issue due to the minuscule black population in the region. That, combined with the old-school Western progressivism that disdained neo-Federalist style federal court rulings which hindered labor causes, appears to be the best explanation for their federal politicians opposing anti-lynching legislation in the 1930s-40s – they saw it as excessive centralized government rule.

      The old-school progressive viewpoint with its stronghold among the West Coast is quite the doozy for our contemporary minds to grasp – their ideological viewpoints, embodying simultaneous support for a variety of anti-big business government initiatives like public power and opposition to anti-lynching legislation on the grounds that it was too “pro-big centralized government,” seemed to have effectively died out by the post-WWII era. The shift in left-right politics from classical “Old Guard” conservatism vs. Jeffersonian progressivism to modern conservatism vs. modern liberalism seemed to gradually initiate during the 1930s and really accelerate during the war years, complete by around the Truman era.

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