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Oscar Stanton De Priest

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Oscar De Priest
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1929 – January 3, 1935
Preceded byMartin B. Madden
Succeeded byArthur W. Mitchell
Member of the Chicago City Council
In office
Preceded byBenjaim A. Grant
Succeeded byArchibald Carey Jr.
Constituency3rd Ward
In office
Succeeded byLouis Anderson
Constituency2nd Ward
Member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners
In office
Preceded byArchibald Carey Jr.
Personal details
Born(1871-03-09)March 9, 1871
Florence, Alabama, U.S.
DiedMay 12, 1951(1951-05-12) (aged 80)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Resting placeGraceland Cemetery
Political partyRepublican
(m. 1898)

Oscar Stanton De Priest (March 9, 1871 – May 12, 1951) was an American politician and civil rights advocate from Chicago. A member of the Illinois Republican Party, he served as a U.S. Representative from Illinois's 1st congressional district from 1929 to 1935. He was the first African American to be elected to Congress in the 20th century. During his three terms, he was the only African American serving in Congress. He was also the first African-American U.S. Representative from outside the southern states.

Born in Alabama to freedmen parents, De Priest was raised in Dayton, Ohio. He studied business and made a fortune in Chicago as a contractor, and in real estate and the stock market before the Crash. A successful local politician, he was elected an alderman to the Chicago City Council in 1914, the first African American to hold that office.

In Congress in the early 1930s, he spoke out against racial discrimination, including at speaking events in the South; tried to integrate the House public restaurant; gained passage of an amendment to desegregate the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the work programs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal; and introduced anti-lynching legislation to the House (it was not passed because of the Solid South Democratic opposition).[1] In 1934, De Priest was defeated by Arthur W. Mitchell, the first African American to be elected as a Democrat to Congress. De Priest returned to Chicago and his successful business ventures, eventually returning to politics, when he was again elected an alderman in the 1940s.[1]

Early life


De Priest was born in 1871 in Florence, Alabama, to freedmen, former slaves of mixed race. He had a brother named Robert. His mother, Martha Karsner, worked part-time as a laundress, and his father Neander was a teamster, associated with the Exodusters movement.[1] After the Civil War, thousands of blacks left continued oppression by whites in the South by moving to other states that offered promises of freedom and greater economic opportunities, such as Kansas. Others moved later in the century.[2]

In 1878, the year after Reconstruction had ended and federal troops been withdrawn from the region, the De Priests left Alabama for Salina, Kansas. Violence had increased in Alabama as whites were restoring white supremacy: the elder De Priest had to save his friend, former U.S. Representative James T. Rapier, from a lynch mob, and a black man was killed on their doorstep.[2] The boy Oscar attended local schools in Salina.[2]





De Priest studied bookkeeping at the Salina Normal School, established also for the training of teachers.[3] In 1889, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, which had been booming as an industrial city. He worked first as an apprentice plasterer, house painter, and decorator. He became a successful contractor and real estate broker. He built a fortune in the stock market and in real estate by helping black families move into formerly all-white neighborhoods, often ones formerly occupied by ethnic white immigrants and their descendants. There was population succession in many neighborhoods under the pressure of new migrants.



From 1904 to 1908, De Priest was a member of the board of commissioners of Cook County, Illinois.[3]

De Priest was elected in 1914 to the Chicago City Council, serving from 1915 to 1917 as alderman from the 2nd Ward, on the South Side. He was Chicago's first black alderman. In 1917 De Priest was indicted for alleged graft and resigned from the City Council.[1] He hired nationally known Clarence Darrow as his defense attorney and was acquitted.[3] He was succeeded in office by Louis B. Anderson.[4]

In 1919, De Priest ran unsuccessfully for alderman as a member of the People's Movement Club, a political organization he founded. In a few years, De Priest's black political organization became the most powerful of many in Chicago, and he became the top black politician under Chicago Republican mayor William Hale Thompson.

De Priest in May 1922[5]

In 1928, when Republican congressman Martin B. Madden died, Mayor Thompson selected De Priest to replace him on the ballot. He was the first African American elected to Congress outside the South and the first to be elected in the 20th century. He represented the 1st Congressional District of Illinois (which included The Loop and part of the South Side of Chicago) as a Republican.[3] During the 1930 election, De Priest was challenged in the primary by noted African-American spokesperson, orator, and Republican Roscoe Conkling Simmons. De Priest defeated Simmons' primary challenge and won the general election afterward.[6] During De Priest's three consecutive terms (1929–1935), he was the only black representative in Congress. He introduced several anti-discrimination bills during these years of the Great Depression.

DePriest's 1933 amendment barring discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a program of the New Deal to employ people across the country in building infrastructure, was passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His anti-lynching bill (House Joint Resolution 171, in 1933[7]) failed due to opposition by the white Democrats of the Solid South, although it would not have made lynching a federal crime. (Previous anti-lynching bills had also failed to pass the Senate, which was dominated by the South since its disenfranchisement of blacks at the turn of the century.)[citation needed] He presented the legislation with a long and detailed speech in which he read newspaper reports and legal opinions: he included the names of victims of lynchings from 1927 on, and provided graphic details of these murders.[8] A third proposal, a bill to permit a transfer of jurisdiction if a defendant believed he or she could not get a fair trial because of race or religion, was passed by a later Congress.

Civil rights activists criticized De Priest for opposing federal aid to the poor, although they nevertheless applauded him for making public speeches in the South despite death threats. They also praised De Priest for telling an Alabama senator he was not big enough to prevent him from dining in the private Senate restaurant. (Some Congressmen ate in the Senate restaurant to avoid De Priest, who usually ate in the Members Dining Room designated for Congressmen.) The public areas of the House and Senate restaurants were segregated. The House accepted that De Priest sometimes brought black staff or visitors to the Members Dining Room, but objected when he entertained mixed groups there.[9]

De Priest defended the right of students of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., to eat in the public section of the House restaurant and not be restricted to a section in the basement near the kitchen, used mostly by black employees and visitors. He took this issue of discrimination against the students (and other black visitors) to a special bipartisan House committee. In a three-month-long heated debate, the Republican political minority argued that the restaurant's discriminatory practice violated 14th Amendment rights to equal access. The Democratic majority skirted the issue by claiming that the restaurant was a private facility and not open to the public. The House restaurant remained segregated through much of the 1940s and maybe as late as 1952.[9]

Mostly aligned with the political right, De Priest generally opposed liberal federal programs under the New Deal, instead favoring increased initiatives on the state or local level.[1] He also was vocal in his denunciation of communism, fearing that its influence would spread to disgruntled blacks. He unsuccessfully pushed to enact a special committee that would investigate the Communist Party of the United States.[1]

In 1929, De Priest made national news when First Lady Lou Hoover invited his wife, Jessie De Priest, to a traditional tea for congressional wives at the White House.[10][11]

De Priest appointed Benjamin O. Davis Jr. to the United States Military Academy at a time when the only African-American line officer in the Army was Davis's father.

De Priest's grave at Graceland Cemetery

By the early 1930s, De Priest's popularity waned because he continued to oppose higher taxes on the rich and fought Depression-era federal relief programs under President Roosevelt.[1] De Priest was defeated in the 1934 United States House of Representatives elections by Republican-turned-Democrat African-American Arthur W. Mitchell, who campaigned on support for the New Deal.[1] After returning to his businesses and political life in Chicago, De Priest was elected again to the Chicago City Council in 1943 as alderman of the 3rd Ward, serving until 1947. He died in Chicago at 80 and is buried in Graceland Cemetery.

Personal life


De Priest married the former Jessie L. Williams (September 3, 1870 – March 31, 1961).[12] They had two sons together: Laurence W. (1899 – July 28, 1916), who died at the age of 16.[13] and Oscar Stanton De Priest, Jr. (May 24, 1906 – November 8, 1983)[14][15] A great-grandson of Oscar De Priest, Jr., Philip R. DePriest, became the administrator of his estate after his grandmother's death in 1992. This included his great-grandfather's Oscar Stanton De Priest House, now a National Historic Landmark, which still held his locked political office. This had not been touched since about 1951. This great-grandson has been working to restore the office and house, and assessing the political archives—"a veritable treasure trove."[16]

Legacy and honors


Electoral history

Illinois's 1st congressional district general election, 1928[18]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Oscar DePriest 24,479 47.8
Democratic Harry Baker 20,664 40.3
Independent William Harrison 5,861 11.4
Independent Benjamin W. Clayton 123 0.2
Independent Edward L. Doty 100 0.2
Total votes 51,227 100
Illinois's 1st congressional district Republican primary, 1930[18]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Oscar DePriest (incumbent) 17,103 70.5
Republican Roscoe Simmons 5,049 20.8
Republican Harry G. Borland 831 3.4
Republican Richard E. Parker 799 3.3
Republican George Hodge 494 2.0
Total votes 24,276 100
Illinois's 1st congressional district general election, 1930[18]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Oscar DePriest (incumbent) 23,719 58.4
Democratic Harry Baker 16,747 41.2
Independent George W. Harts 68 0.2
Independent T. W. Chavers 64 0.2
Independent Edward Turner 44 0.1
Total votes 40,642 100
Illinois's 1st congressional district Republican primary, 1932[18]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Oscar DePriest (incumbent) 21,252 76.8
Republican Louis B. Anderson 5,457 19.7
Republican James L. Scott 979 3.5
Total votes 27,688 100
Illinois's 1st congressional district general election, 1932[18]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Oscar DePriest (incumbent) 33,672 54.8
Democratic Harry Baker 26,959 43.9
Independent Herbert Newton 843 1.4
Total votes 61,474 100
Illinois's 1st congressional district Republican primary, 1934[18]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Oscar DePriest (incumbent) 18,054 94.6
Republican Chandler Owen 1,034 5.4
Total votes 19,088 100
Illinois's 1st congressional district general election, 1934[18]
Party Candidate Votes %
Democratic Arthur W. Mitchell 27,963 53.0
Republican Oscar DePriest (incumbent) 24,829 47.0
Total votes 52,792 100

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h De Priest, Oscar Stanton. US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. Retrieved January 29, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c Stokes-Hammond, Shelley. "Pathbreakers: Oscar Stanton DePriest and Jessie L. Williams DePriest". The White House Historical Association. Archived from the original on June 9, 2015. Retrieved May 31, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d "Black Americans in Congress". United States: Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved December 11, 2009.
  4. ^ "The Common Council". Chicago Eagle. April 21, 1917. Retrieved May 16, 2019 – via Newspapers.com.
  5. ^ Taylor, Julius F. (May 13, 1922). "The Broad Ax". No. 34. Retrieved June 17, 2015.
  6. ^ The Union (Chicago, IL) March 6, 1930.
  7. ^ United States Congress (1957). Reports and Documents. Vol. 28. p. 37.
  8. ^ United States. Congress (1933). Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the Seventy-Third Congress. Vol. 77. pp. 2822–2827.
  9. ^ a b Elliott M. Rudwick, "Oscar De Priest and the Jim Crow Restaurant in the U. S. House of Representatives", The Journal of Negro Education Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter, 1966), pp. 77–82, via JSTOR, accessed 21 March 2016
  10. ^ Day, Davis S. (Winter 1980). "Herbert Hoover and Racial Politics: The De Priest Incident". Journal of Negro History. 65 (1). Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.: 6–17. doi:10.2307/3031544. JSTOR 3031544. S2CID 149611666.
  11. ^ "'A Tempest In a Teapot' The Racial Politics of First Lady Lou Hoover's Invitation of Jessie De Priest to a White House Tea". The White House Historical Association. Archived from the original on September 3, 2014. Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  12. ^ "Cook County (IL) Clerk's Office Death Index (Jessie L. De Priest) [database on-line]". Chicago, Illinois: Cook County (IL) Clerk. Archived from the original on September 25, 2009. Retrieved May 5, 2009.
  13. ^ "Cook County (IL) Clerk's Office Death Index (Laurence W. De Priest) [database on-line]". Chicago, Illinois: Cook County (IL) Clerk. Archived from the original on September 25, 2009. Retrieved May 5, 2009.
  14. ^ "Social Security Death Index [database on-line]". United States: The Generations Network. Retrieved May 5, 2009.
  15. ^ "Cook County (IL) Clerk's Office Death Index (Oscar S. De Priest) [database on-line]". Chicago, Illinois: Cook County (IL) Clerk. Archived from the original on September 25, 2009. Retrieved May 5, 2009.
  16. ^ "The DePriest Family Legacy", Video Interview, White House Historical Association
  17. ^ Illinois: Oscar Stanton De Priest House. National Park Service. Retrieved January 29, 2022.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g "Downloadable Vote Totals". Illinois State Board of Elections. Retrieved October 11, 2022.[permanent dead link]


  • Day, S. Davis. "Herbert Hoover and Racial Politics: The De Priest Incident". Journal of Negro History 65 (Winter 1980): 6–17.
  • Gosnell, Harold F. Negro politicians; the rise of Negro politics in Chicago (1935) online
  • Hendricks, Wanda A. "'Vote for the Advantage of Ourselves and Our Race': The Election of the First Black Alderman in Chicago." Illinois Historical Journal 87.3 (1994): 171–184. online
  • Mann, Kenneth Eugene. "Oscar Stanton DePriest: Persuasive Agent for the Black Masses." Negro History Bulletin 35.6 (1972): 134–137. online
  • Nordhaus-Bike, Anne. "Oscar DePriest lived Pisces's call to service, unity." Gazette, March 7, 2008.
  • Olasky, Martin. "History turned right side up". World magazine. 13 February 2010. p. 22.
  • Rudwick, Elliott M. "Oscar De Priest and the Jim Crow Restaurant in the U.S. House of Representatives". Journal of Negro Education 35 (Winter 1966): 77–82.
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 1st congressional district

Succeeded by