Oscar Stanton De Priest Biography

U.S. Representative(1871–1951)
Oscar Stanton De Priest represented Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century.

Synopsis

Civil rights advocate Oscar Stanton De Priest was born in Florence, Alabama on March 9, 1871, to former slaves. He moved to Chicago in 1889 and worked odd jobs including painting houses. De Priest became involved in politics and served on the Chicago City Council. In 1928, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the first African American to serve in Congress in the 20th century.

Profile

U.S. Congressman. Born March 9, 1871, in Florence, Alabama, Oscar Stanton De Priest, the son of former slaves, became the first African-American elected to Congress in the 20th century when he won the House seat for the South Side district of Chicago in the 1928 election.

De Priest's parents were hard-working people. His father, Alexander, found employment as a farmer, while his mother, Mary, washed clothes part-time. Like many African-Americans looking to escape the South for a new life in the North, the De Priests, as part of what historians would later label the Great Migration, left Alabama when Oscar was a young child and put down new roots in Kansas.

There, De Priest attended elementary school in Salina and later enrolled in the Salina Normal School, where he studied bookkeeping.

In 1889, De Priest left Kansas for a new life in Chicago, where he found work as a house painter, plasterer, and decorator. It was there that De Priest also met his future wife, Jessie Williams. The two married on February 23, 1898, and eventually had a child, Oscar Stanton, Jr.

For De Priest, Chicago proved to be a perfect fit for an ambitious young man like himself. The city had become a magnet for Southern blacks and with so few African-American leaders to represent them in their new city, De Priest saw an opportunity in politics. His skillful approach to negotiations and his ability to deliver black votes for the Republican party, landed him a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1914, where he served two full terms.

As his stature grew, so did his ambitions. De Priest earned considerable wealth running his own real estate management firm, but politics continued to call to him, too. Between 1915 and 1917, he ran his business while he served on the Chicago City Council. He was forced to resign, however, when he was indicted on charges for accepting protection money. De Priest was later acquitted, but it took some years for him to rehab his name. By 1924 he'd done just that, and was elected Third Ward committeeman.

In 1928, following the death of longtime First District representative Martin Madden in April of that year, De Priest's political fortunes took another huge leap when he was tapped as the Republican nominee to replace the late Congressman. In a crowded field that included his main Democratic opponent, Harry Baker, as well as several independent candidates, De Priest narrowly pulled out a victory, winning just 48 percent of the vote.

Still, it was enough to land him in Washington and make him the first African-American to win a Congressional seat in some three decades. But life in his new city, which was still heavily segregated, and work at the House was anything but easy for De Priest. Two Southern members refused to allow their offices to be adjacent to his, and when Louise Hoover, the President's wife, invited Jessie to the Executive Mansion for tea, it sent shock-waves throughout the South.

But De Priest refused to back down. "I've been elected to Congress the same way as any other member," he said. "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."

He backed up his words with his work. He quietly took his seat on less glamorous committees such as Indian Affairs, Invalid Pensions, an Enrolled Bills. De Priest, who would go on to serve three terms, later served on the Post Office and Post Roads Committee.

His work also included several anti-discrimination bills, including a 1933 amendment that barred discrimination practices in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Roosevelt. He pushed other bills, too, including a $75 per month pension for former slaves who were over the age of 75, and tried to retract the number of seats a state could have in the House if they disenfranchised blacks. De Priest also introduced several anti-lynching bills and, in 1933, introduced a joint resolution authorizing the federal government to change the location of a trial if the defendant's right was hampered by his race, color, or creed.

As a Republican, however, De Priest was opposed to the kinds of federal government programs President Roosevelt was pushing with his New Deal program. It was a stance he continued to take even as the Depression wore on and poverty throughout the country escalated. Eventually, many of the same African-Americans who had sided with the party of Abraham Lincoln since the Civil War, crossed the aisle and gave their support to the Democrats. In November 1934, De Priest lost his bid for a fourth term when Arthur Mitchell, a New Deal Democrat, defeated him.

While he would never again achieve the kind of political clout he'd had when he'd served in Washington, De Priest was not done politically. In 1943 he again won an election, this time to return to his old stomping grounds as Third Ward alderman. He later had a second stint on the Chicago City Council.

Oscar Stanton De Priest died on May 12, 1951, in Chicago. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery.

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