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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.
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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.
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