Meet Oscar Stanton De Priest, The First Black Person Elected To Congress In The 20th Century
9th March 2023 by BOTWC Staff
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9th March 2023 by BOTWC Staff
He was born on this day 152 years ago!
Oscar Stanton De Priest was born March 9, 1871 to formerly enslaved parents Alexander and Mary (Karsner) De Priest in Florence, Alabama, the United States House of Representatives’ History, Art & Archives reports. The family migrated from the Mississippi Valley to Kansas at the end of Reconstruction, De Priest graduating from elementary school in the city of Salina before enrolling in a business course to study bookkeeping at the Salina Normal School. By 1889, De Priest had relocated to Chicago, setting in before the great migration. In the new city, he found work as a painter, decorator, and apprentice plasterer before opening his own real estate management company.
De Priest went on to marry his wife Jessie Williams on February 23, 1898, the couple having two children. Spurred by Chicago’s political landscape and the rising African-American population in the city, De Priest decided to put his hat in the ring, galvanizing Republican party support through voting from behind the scenes. His work paid off, and his ability to secure the Black vote in the Second and Third Ward’s earned him his first elected position in 1904, a seat on Chicago’s Cook County Board of Commissioners. He served two terms from 1904 through 1908 before factions in the party caused him to take a 7-year hiatus from politics.
He subsequently put all his energy back into his real estate business, gaining a lot of prominence through his entrepreneurial efforts and making invaluable relationships with Chicago’s Mayor, William “Big Bill” Hale Thompson and U.S. Rep. Martin Madden. In 1915, De Priest returned to politics, this time making history as Chicago’s first Black alderman, serving on the city council from 1915 to 1917. An allegation of accepting gambling money caused his abrupt departure from the council, but he was later acquitted of the charges. Rejected as a result of the accusations, it would take him nearly a decade to regain enough trust in the community, finally getting elected Third Ward committeeman in 1924.
A few years later, veteran Chicago Rep. Martin Madden unexpectedly passed away just after securing the Republican nomination for a 13th term in Congress. Mayor Thompson called on De Priest to replace Madden as the congressional nominee where he would be representing the city’s Loop business section, comprised of majority white neighborhoods and an area of majority Black neighborhoods, which included the historic Bronzeville section on Chicago’s South Side. While some Black leaders weren’t in favor of De Priest’s nomination, he managed to defeat his opponents, albeit by a narrow margin, securing 48 percent of the vote. On April 15, 1929, he made history as the first African-American person elected to Congress in the 20th century, paving the way for the trend of Black representation in northern urban cities.
His seat in Congress was met with opposition, other elected officials conspiring to ensure that no one would be able to thwart De Priest’s swearing in. His first day in Congress was met with an onslaught of press, and many Black residents showed up to watch the ceremony from the segregated visitor’s area. De Priest would go on to serve three terms in Congress, where he was the only Black Congressional member during his tenure. While met with relentless discrimination, De Priest continued to push back, organizing fundraisers for the NAACP, introducing resolutions for specific investigations into segregation practices inside the capitol, lobbying for equality in daily systems of the House Chamber, and advocating for Black preachers to be allowed in the House for opening prayer.
While many of his legislative efforts were shut down, De Priest understood that he not only represented Chicago, but all African-Americans across the United States. He worked hard to create equal representation for underserved Black areas in the city and attempted to provide monthly pensions in 1932 to elders who were formerly enslaved. De priest was behind the bill to make Abraham Lincoln’s birthday a holiday, and he was also behind a joint resolution authorizing federal courts to change the location of a trial if a defendant’s rights might be compromised by race, color, or creed, after the Scottsboro boys were wrongfully sentenced to death. He also sought to establish anti-lynching laws that would fine local authorities if prisoners in their jurisdiction were lynched.
“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,” De Priest once remarked.
No matter how many times his efforts were squashed, De Priest persisted and gained some wins in the process. In March 1933, he secured an anti-discrimination rider for a $300 million unemployment relief and reforestation measure, launching the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). De Priest also began nominating African-American men from his district to the military academies, a practice that continues today among Black politicians in Chicago. Unlike his predecessor, De Priest didn’t receive prestigious committee assignments while in Congress, but his appointments still worked in his favor. His mere presence on committees like the Post Office and Post Roads assignment boosted African-American employment in the Post Office by 45 percent.
While De Priest made a lot of progress during his time in office, he was ultimately unseated in the House in 1934 by Arthur Mitchell, the first Black Democratic candidate elected to Congress. Mitchell critiqued his adherence to the Republican party policies. At the time, African-Americans were in great need of economic relief as a result of the Depression. While De Priest and other Republicans felt the solution was at the state and community level, the Democratic party disagreed, feeling like the GOP response wasn’t enough. After an unsuccessful reelection attempt in 1947, De Priest shifted back to his real estate endeavors, working in that sector until his death on May 12, 1951.
We remember the contributions and sacrifices of Oscar Stanton De Priest. Because of him, we can!
Meet Oscar Stanton De Priest, the first Black person elected to Congress in the 20th century/Photo Courtesy of Bettmann/Getty Images