De Priest, Oscar
DE PRIEST, OSCAR
On April 15, 1929, Oscar Stanton De Priest (March 9, 1871–May 12, 1951) took the oath of office as representative for the First District in Illinois, becoming the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress from the North. Born in the Reconstruction South in the heyday of enfranchisement, De Priest helped to reestablish black citizenship by serving Chicago's Loop, Gold Coast, and black South Side districts. Soon after De Priest's historic victory, the black historian Carter G. Woodson organized a $1.50-a-plate banquet for "living congressmen" that featured three Reconstruction-era congressmen and Rep. De Priest.
Born in 1871, the light-skinned son of former slaves from Alabama, De Priest migrated with his family to Kansas when he was a child. He ran away to Ohio with a white friend at the age of seventeen and later began working as a teamster in Chicago. De Priest cut his political teeth on the Chicago Republican Party machine, winning favors from congressmen, election to the post of Cook County Commissioner, and, after building a decorating business, a seat on the city council to become Chicago's first black alderman. When the incumbent representative in the district died, De Priest was widely assumed to be the frontrunner. The election, however, was close, in part because of an untimely fraud and vice investigation that ensnared De Priest in controversy. The investigation was dropped due to insufficient evidence. De Priest won the 1928 election by four thousand black votes, but lost virtually every white vote.
De Priest won instant recognition as a black congressman; he also won notoriety. Before moving to Washington, he applied to occupy offices in the House of Representatives building, but a senior congressman challenged De Priest's assignment. Although De Priest graciously conceded, his next assignment was also challenged when a southern congressman threatened to vacate his offices rather than neighbor a black man. Liberals from the Republican Party came to De Priest's aid. An economic conservative in the mold of Booker T. Washington, De Priest served his party in a non-ideological fashion, although he did address racial issues. He lobbied for appropriations for Howard University and pensions for ex-slaves. He also lectured at various black functions, and accepted invitations to speak on black politics to state legislatures. During his term, De Priest's most controversial activities concerned desegregation of a congressional dining room. Although De Priest was permitted to dine, neither his black staff nor black visitors could enter, while all whites were welcomed. De Priest introduced a measure to the floor to integrate the dining room but lost in committee by a two (Republicans) to three (Democrats) vote. He blasted the decision as a betrayal of equal protection.
De Priest faced a tough reelection in 1934, primarily because of black disaffection from the Republican Party. He was opposed by Arthur Wergs Mitchell, a well-educated and astute New Deal Democrat who employed cartoons and able oratory against the De Priest campaign. At one point De Priest lost his characteristic calm demeanor and sharply criticized the black religious community, particularly local Baptists, for bolting to the Democrats with their promises of relief. Then, given Republican Party disarray in Chicago, his strategists could not regain control of the local machine, signaling voter disaffection. As part and parcel of the realignment of black voters from the Republican Party of Frederick Douglass to the New Deal coalition, Mitchell outpolled De Priest by three thousand votes in 1934. Bitter with disappointment, De Priest conducted several recounts of the ballots, but in the end graciously conceded defeat. That year he was named Man of the Year by the Chicago Defender in recognition of the esteem he received from African Americans. De Priest continued to serve in a public capacity until his death in 1951.
Greene, Lorenze. "Dr. Woodson Prepares for Negro History Week, 1930." Negro History Bulletin 28, no. 8 (1965): 174–175.
Mann, Kenneth Eugene. "Oscar Stanton De Priest: Persuasive Agent for the Black Masses." Negro History Bulletin 35, no. 6 (1972): 134–137.
Nordin, Dennis S. The New Deal's Black Congressmen: A Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell. 1997.
Rudwick, Elliot, M. "Oscar De Priest and the Jim Crow Restaurant in the U.S. House of Representatives." Journal of Negro History 35, no. 1 (1966): 77–82.