Oscar Stanton De Priest (R-Chicago): city's first African-American alderman, Illinois' first African-American Congressman

U.S. Rep. Oscar Stanton De Priest (R-Chicago)
was the first African American elected to
Congress in the 20th century, and the first
ever from any northern state.
In the years immediately after the Civil War, African-Americans suddenly advanced from enslavement to citizenship and made huge strides towards full equality under the law. African-Americans sat in the House and Senate, holding seats from states of the old Confederacy. Unfortunately, the gains did not last long, and with the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the south in 1877, Jim Crow and segregation began to rise, erasing many of the gains.

By the end of the 19th Century, when it came to membership in Congress, African-Americans were again on the outside looking in. That all changed in 1928 with the election of the first African-American congressman of the 20th Century, U.S. Rep. Oscar Stanton De Priest (R-Illinois).

Oscar De Priest was born to former slaves in 1871 in Alabama and moved to Kansas in 1878 before arriving in Chicago in 1889. De Priest went to work as a painter and decorator, then branched out into real estate, helping to integrate several Chicago neighborhoods. As a business owner, he became a skillful negotiator, and soon heard the call of politics. With the Great Migration getting started, the African-American population of Chicago was on the rise, but there were few African-American elected officials to represent them. In 1904, De Priest ran for and won a seat on the Cook County Board, where he served two terms.

He then made history in 1915, becoming the first African-American elected to the Chicago City Council, representing the south side’s 2nd Ward. An ally of Mayor Big Bill Thompson, De Priest rose to prominence in the City Council and introduced one of the first civil rights ordinances in Chicago history, before a bribery scandal cut his city hall career short in 1917. Acquitted of all charges, De Priest spent some time away from politics before being named 3rd Ward committeeman in 1924.

When Congressman Martin Madden died in April of 1928, De Priest threw his hat in the ring to replace him, and won in a crowded field. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from a northern state, and the first from anywhere in the country in 30 years.

De Priest encountered hostility upon his arrival in Washington, in those days still a segregated southern city. Two members refused to have their offices located next to his, and there was outrage in some quarters when the First Lady, Louise Hoover, invited De Priest’s wife, Jessie, to the White House for tea.

But De Priest would not be bullied. He confronted an Alabama legislator who sought to bar him from the restaurant in the Capitol, and argued that the restaurants on Capitol Hill should be desegregated. “I’ve been elected to Congress the same way as any other member, and I’m going to have the rights of every other Congressman,” he said, and immediately went to work.
De Priest’s accomplishments in Congress included passage of an anti-discrimination amendment to the bill creating a New Deal jobs program, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Anti-lynching legislation and a bill to allow a change of venue if a defendant felt he could not get a fair trial due to race were among his other priorities, though their passage would have to wait for later Congresses. Voting rights legislation and a pension to the few surviving ex-slaves were among other legislation he sought in Washington. De Priest also appointed Benjamin O. Davis to West Point, thus beginning the military career of the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen and the first African-American General in the U.S. Air Force.
A fiscal conservative, De Priest opposed higher taxes and the vast expansion of the federal government of the early 1930s. His opposition to additional aid to the poor led to a decline in his popularity, and he was defeated for re-election in 1934.

Returning home to Chicago, De Priest stayed active, serving as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1936, and winning another term on the Chicago City Council in the 1940s. He died in Chicago on May 12, 1951, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery. Today he is memorialized both with the name of an elementary school in Chicago, and also at his home, a national historic landmark at 4536 South Martin Luther King Boulevard.