DePriest, Oscar Stanton

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DePriest, Oscar Stanton

March 9, 1871
May 12, 1951

Congressman and businessman Oscar DePriest was born in Florence, Alabama, the child of former slaves. In 1878, as part of the Exodusters migration, the family emigrated to Kansas to escape poverty. DePriest went to Chicago in 1889 and worked as a painter and decorator, trades that led him to become a building contractor and later a successful real estate broker. He also turned out to be a tireless political organizer and established himself as a valuable member of the powerful Republican Party organization. The party slated him in 1904 for his victorious first race for a public position, a place on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. He won reelection in 1906, but his loss two years later sidelined him from political office until he won election as Chicago's first black alderman in 1915.

Rapid migration of African Americans to Chicago from the South drove up property values in the segregated South Side Black Belt, and DePriest capitalized on the resulting real estate opportunities to amass a considerable fortune. These new immigrants would also refuel DePriest's political career as he became the central black leader in Republican mayor William ("Big Bill") Thompson's machinea formidable organization held together by patronage, generosity in political appointments, and extraordinary party loyalty among blacks. DePriests's big political break came in 1928 with the death of his mentor, Congressman Martin Madden. DePriest insisted that the party support his candidacy for Madden's old seat, and with its backing the district's swelling black majority elected him. When, in 1929, DePriest took his seat in the 71st Congress as the first African-American U.S. representative from a northern state, it was the first time in twenty-eight years that the House had had a black member.

In Congress, DePriest was an energetic, controversial figure who had little success in enacting his frequently introduced civil rights measures. His colleagues defeated his antilynching bill, a measure prohibiting government job discrimination in the South, a proposal to have blacks served in the House restaurant, and a plan for transfer of jurisdiction in criminal cases when a defendant feared local racial or religious prejudice. His most outstanding achievement was an amendment that Congress enacted in March 1933 to prohibit discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He also secured greater government support of Howard University and was a strong supporter of immigration restriction to preserve jobs for African Americans.

DePriest survived the first Democratic electoral sweeps of 1930 and 1932, but he lost two years later to a black Democrat, Arthur Mitchell, as African-American voters in Chicago gave up their traditional loyalty to the party of Abraham Lincoln and turned to the Democrats. DePriest resumed his real estate career, lost to Mitchell again in 1936, and served once more as a Chicago alderman between 1943 and 1947. He died of a kidney ailment in 1951.

See also Mitchell, Arthur


Christopher, Maurine. Black Americans in Congress. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Drake, St. Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945). New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

steven j. leslie (1996)