TBT: “I’m going to have the rights of every other Congressman”

Rep. John W.E. Thomas, Rep. Adelbert Roberts,
and Congressman Oscar Stanton DePriest
As the 30th General Assembly convened in January 1877 it was an exciting time for Illinois. The post-Civil War economic boom had come to Illinois at full speed, and the state was now among the fastest-growing in the nation. Legislators were meeting for the first time in the new State Capitol building at 2nd and Monroe in Springfield.

And one of the 153 men taking the oath of office in the House of Representatives was making history that day.

John W.E. Thomas had been born into slavery in Alabama in 1847. He discovered the joy of reading and writing at an early age. In his youth he would courageously defy the local authorities by teaching other African-Americans to read, and the desire to be an educator stayed with him his entire life. Together with his wife Maria and their daughter Hester he came to Chicago just after the Civil War.

Thomas ran a grocery store, while opening a school for African-American children in his home. The Chicago InterOcean newspaper wrote of how “the child and the gray-haired freedman, side by side, learned their letters in his home.” He joined the party of Lincoln in 1874, and served as a delegate to that year’s Republican county convention. At the next election in 1876, Thomas was nominated as part of the Republican slate for state representative.

Thomas received more than 11,000 votes and won a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives, becoming the first African-American legislator in Illinois history. He later wrote, “the majority which I received on election day demonstrated at the polls that the people approved my nomination.”

During his six years in the House (1877-78 and 1883-87), Thomas was assigned to the Education Committee and later served on the Judiciary Committee. In an era in which there was rampant absenteeism amongst legislators, Thomas compiled an exemplary record of attention to his duties: missing only eight votes in his first legislative session, better than all but two of his colleagues. A newspaper writer would later describe him as “the most punctual man in the legislature.”
Rep. John W.E. Thomas (number 18) pictured in a collage
photograph of Illinois' 30th General Assembly. Photo from
the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.

During his first year he sponsored a bill requiring children between the ages of seven and fifteen to attend school, but it did not become law. He supported successful legislation creating the State Board of Health, the Illinois State Historical Library and Natural Museum, and the Illinois National Guard (or State Militia).

Thomas later helped pass legislation prohibiting discrimination in public places in Illinois and enacting fines and possible prison time for violators. The bill passed the House with a bipartisan majority of 83 to 19. It then passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and was signed into law by Governor Richard Oglesby.

Near the end of his first legislative session, the Springfield State Journal wrote that Thomas had “proven himself an able, attentive and sensible representative of the interests of his constituents.”

Rep. Thomas’ years in Springfield were certainly not without adversity. He endured acts of discrimination in the press and by his colleagues, including an (unsuccessful) effort to bar African-American ministers from offering the prayer at the beginning of session. Some members yelled in protest when Thomas was asked to take the Speaker’s chair for a brief time. He conscientiously served his constituents despite frequent incidents of jeering, taunts and name-calling.

He faced personal tragedy as well. His wife Maria died during his first term. He remarried a few years later. While Justine Thomas was expecting a child, he brought her to Springfield so that he could care for her during the legislative session. Justine gave birth to a daughter at the home of Thomas’ friend Reverend L.A. Coleman on 4th Street in Springfield, but both mother and daughter died a short time later. Thomas pressed on, however, returning to the House just days after this tragedy.

“I may have erred on some occasions, who has not?” Thomas wrote to constituents near the end of his first term. “But this I have, however, the proud satisfaction of knowing. No taint of personal or political dishonesty was ever or can ever truthfully be charged upon me. I was true to myself, true to my state and true to my party. And I believe that no member of the legislature of which I was a member can be found; be he Republican or Democrat; who will not say that I have today his respect as a legislator and his esteem as a man.”

After his retirement from the House, John Thomas remained a leader in Chicago’s African-American community. He stayed active in politics, serving in local government and running for the Cook County Board and the Illinois Senate. He was a Republican presidential elector in 1892. He practiced law and engaged in real estate until his death in 1899. John W.E. Thomas is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. In 2015, Thomas’ accomplishments were recognized in a resolution of the 99th General Assembly.

Over the next decades, Thomas’ path to the Illinois House was followed by more African-American legislators. But almost 50 years would pass between the election of Illinois’ first African-American state representative and the first African-American state senator.

Rep. Adelbert H. Roberts
Rep. Adelbert Roberts (R-Chicago) joined the House in 1918 after a successful career as an attorney. A Michigan-born graduate of Northwestern University law school and a close friend of civil rights pioneer Booker T. Washington, Roberts was himself a crusader for civil rights. He was appointed by Governor Frank Lowden to the Race Commission which was charged with studying the causes of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot and recommending remedies to prevent such an outbreak again in the future. Roberts used his post as an opportunity to urge action to address labor and housing discrimination in the city.

In 1924, Roberts was elected to the Illinois Senate, the first African-American to be seated in that chamber. His skill as an orator became well known, and he chaired the Senate’s Criminal Procedures Committee in his second term. He helped lead the fight to end discrimination on state public works contracts.

Roberts died in 1937 at the age of 69. He was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island. Today the state honors him with a statue which was placed on the second floor rotunda of the Illinois Capitol in 1987.

Four years after Roberts was elected to the Illinois Senate, another Illinoisan made history at the national level. Congressman Oscar Stanton DePriest (R-Illinois) became the first African-American elected to Congress from the Land of Lincoln when he was chosen by the voters in 1928.

Congressman DePriest arrived in Illinois from Alabama; by way of Kansas; in 1889. The son of former slaves, he was a businessman, working as a painter and decorator before going into real estate. He first entered elected office in 1904 when he won a seat on the Cook County Board. In 1915 he was elected to the Chicago City Council, making him the first African-American to attain the office of Alderman in Chicago. DePriest was an ally of Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson during his time on the city council.

Illinois Congressman Oscar Stanton DePriest
Upon being sworn in as Congressman in 1929, DePriest immediately faced prejudice from some other members of Congress. Two southern representatives would not even occupy Capitol Hill offices that were next to his. When First Lady Lou Hoover invited DePriest’s wife Jessie to tea at the White House some southerners were outraged. DePriest was unmoved. “I’ve been elected to Congress the same way as any other member. I’m going to have the rights of every other Congressman, no more, no less, if it’s in the Congressional barber shop or at a White House tea.”

DePriest confronted another Congressman who sought to bar him from the restaurant in the Capitol. “If we allow segregation and the denial of Constitutional rights under the Dome of the Capitol, where in God’s name will we get them?” he asked. “If we allow this challenge to go without correcting it, it will set an example where people will say Congress itself approves of segregation.”

In Washington, DePriest fought for civil rights, including federal anti-lynching legislation and pensions for elderly former slaves. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed his legislation outlawing discrimination in federal relief programs and within the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies. He proposed legislation which would allow a trial to be moved to a different location if a defendant was unable to obtain a fair trial due to race or religion. Though the bill was unsuccessful at the time, it did eventually become law.

DePriest was a staunch anti-communist. He also appointed several African-American cadets to the service academies, including Benjamin O. Davis, who would go on to command the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and become the first African-American general in the United States Army.

Though his first election had been close, Congressman DePriest was re-elected twice with larger margins. DePriest opposed large parts of the New Deal, which led to his eventual defeat in his quest for a fourth term in 1934. He went back to his real estate firm, and a decade later he returned to the Chicago City Council. Oscar Stanton DePriest died in 1951 and is buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. His home at 4536-4538 South Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago is a National Historic Landmark.