Few today remember him – about the only lasting nod to his legacy is an elementary school bearing his name in East Garfield Park – but a hundred years ago today Oscar DePriest made history, becoming the first African-American elected alderman in Chicago.
DePriest holds several other firsts. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from the North, in 1928 — and the first elected in the 20th century.
He also, ignominiously, was the first African-American alderman to resign from the City Council under cloud of indictment, just two years after his 1915 election. He stood accused of protecting policy kingpins who ran a numbers racket that flourished in many of Chicago’s mostly poor and mostly black neighborhoods, but was later acquitted.
His attorney in the case was Clarence Darrow.
In many ways, he represents the early part of the story of the African-American experience in Chicago, arriving with little or nothing, parlaying luck, intelligence, savvy and hard work into establishing financial success, becoming a part of a thriving middle class and an emerging upper class and then using that success to take the last step to equal footing, attaining and wielding political power.
He represented the Second Ward, which included Bronzeville, and had been active in politics – in the city’s then-thriving Republican Party – reliably turning out votes for the Republican machine.
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, DePriest spent his time on the council advocating for increased rights for African-Americans and also pursuing patronage jobs for residents of his ward.
Once off the council, he didn’t let the corruption charges sideline him and became integral in the growing effort among African-Americans for political power, forming the Peoples’ Movement, which scholar Charles R. Branham described as the only significant militant black political organization in Chicago before Operation PUSH.
Branham writes that DePriest used it as his personal political party, aligning with politicians who would grant concessions to African-American political power.
One such pol was William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, who was elected to his first term as mayor at the same time DePriest won his city council seat. Another was U.S. Rep. Martin Madden, a millionaire quarryman and powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Madden represented the First District for decades.
When Madden died unexpectedly in his office just off the House floor in the Capitol mere weeks after winning the 1928 primary, Thompson backed DePriest to succeed him.
DePriest was poised for the opportunity, having reportedly encouraged one of his young lieutenants, William L. Dawson, to oppose Madden in the primary as a stalking horse to soften Madden’s hold on the district, which was becoming increasingly African-American with the influx of residents arriving in the city through the Great Migration.
Dawson, who lost a leg to a train on a trip to Detroit to speak on behalf of DePriest, later ruled the South Side as alderman and congressman – as a Democrat. He served in Washington from 1943 until his death in 1970.
DePriest served three terms in Congress.
But first, a bit about his background. He was born to former slaves in Florence, Alabama, in 1871. Florence was the birthplace, earlier, of fugitive slave Dred Scott and, two years after DePriest’s birth, bluesman W.C. Handy.
DePriest’s family fled Alabama when he was young as a part of the Exodus Movement, a precursor to the Great Migration. Many African-Americans realized the heightened danger and animosity toward them as white Democrats re-took control of political machinery as the Reconstruction period ended and Confederate states again became self-governing, without federal oversight.
Most, like the DePriests, moved to Kansas, where they hoped they could live without the threats to their freedoms as citizens.
After school, where he studied bookkeeping, DePriest ended up in Chicago at 18 and worked as a house painter and plasterer before becoming active in politics.
He also later became wealthy as a real estate broker, taking advantage of white flight from areas as the city burgeoned, selling to the new African-American arrivals from a new, more widespread migration from the south from the 1920s onward.
While in Congress, DePriest not only represented the First District of Illinois – which has had an unbroken line of African-American representatives from DePriest to Bobby Rush – but he symbolically represented African-Americans nationwide: people named their children after him, he spoke for people of color and represented their interests and defended their rights.
His three terms saw him fighting bigotry in Congress, in Washington and in the nation.
Although the lone African-American in Congress, he wasn’t without friends in the capital. Many looked to make his tenure hospitable, realizing the historic nature of the moment. House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, at the urging of another Chicago Republican representative, Ruth Hanna McCormick, changed the way new representatives were sworn in.
Until that time, members were sworn in state by state. People feared that any of several hostile southerners in states sworn in before Illinois’ delegation might try to block DePriest from being seated. Longworth swore them in all at once, mooting any such attempt.
DePriest fought to integrate the Capitol dining facilities, demanding an investigation after an aide and the aide’s son were thrown out of the House dining room.
“If we allow segregation and the denial of constitutional rights under the dome of the Capitol,” he thundered on the House floor, “where in God’s name will we get them?”
This, remember, was at a time that the law of the land was the uneasy “separate but equal” doctrine that came from the Supreme Court’s Plessy decision. The House dining room space for blacks was in the basement, next to the kitchen. Unequal.
He defended the call for the investigation, which he got, by saying, “If we allow this challenge [to the right of African-Americans to eat among white patrons] to go without correcting it, it will set an example where people will say Congress itself approves of segregation.”
But he had to pull every parliamentary trick to get a hostile House to look into the matter. A history of his time in Congress, published on a House of Representatives website, notes that he gathered the names of 145 representatives to bypass the Rules Committee, where his request for the investigation was sent to be buried.
Although he won and the investigation was launched, a party-line vote of three Democrats to two Republicans left the segregation policy in place by not making any recommendations for change.
He sponsored anti-lynching legislation and, as a response to the mishandling of the Scottsboro case in 1931, sought to allow trials to be moved if defendants were unlikely to get a fair hearing from a local jury. One success was his effort to bar race as a factor in hiring practices in the New Deal jobs program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Shortly after arriving in town, DePriest found himself at the center of controversy as the ugliness of racism was laid bare.
Congressional wives are traditionally invited to a tea at the White House, hosted by the first lady.
Lou Hoover, like Speaker Longworth, wanted to protect Jessie DePriest from probable boorish behavior from some of the other wives, but her solution was the opposite of Longworth’s: Instead of having one tea, Hoover split them into five separate events.
After news of the tea was reported, criticism mounted both in the media and in letters to the White House. Most were from outraged bigots, but some were from people outraged by the outrage.
The objection was social mixing.
DePriest was quoted in an Associated Press story in 1929 as saying: “I want to thank the Democrats of the South for one thing. They were so barbaric they drove my parents to the North. If it had not been for that I wouldn’t be in Congress today. I’ve been Jim Crowed, segregated, persecuted, and I think I know how best the Negro can put a stop to being imposed upon. It is through the ballot, through organization, through eternally fighting for his rights.”
Despite the trail he blazed, he was also a victim of a generational change: He and his parents were Republicans because of Lincoln, and he hewed to social policies of the Republican Party that worked for a man in his 60s who had attained wealth and a successful career. But the Depression, which hit the nation hard and its black citizens harder, caused those younger to switch allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democrats and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
His re-election bid in 1934 attracted national attention because it was the first race that featured an African-American challenging an African-American. DePriest lost to Arthur Mitchell.
DePriest eventually returned to Chicago and won a term on the City Council from the Third Ward. He died on May 19, 1951, at the age of 80 from complications that arose after he was hit by a bus.
His home was in an eight flat building he owned at 4536-38 S. King Drive; South Parkway in DePriest’s day. It is registered as a National Historic Landmark.
The Oscar DePriest house on the South Side.
Marcel Pacatte is the former director of the Medill News Service at Northwestern University, where he taught reporting, writing and editing. He now teaches at Boise State University.