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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: Oscar Stanton De Priest

In this blog posting, I will discuss a chapter from my work-in-progress, Congressional Lions, involving a trailblazing legislator named Oscar Stanton De Priest.

Throughout his long life, De Priest was a pioneer. First and foremost, he is remembered as the first black man elected to Congress from outside the South, and the first black congressman during the twentieth century. An Illinois politician, De Priest founded a black political organization to consolidate the gains achieved by people of color in Chicago. He later became Chicago’s first black alderman. In 1928, after Republican Congressman Martin B. Madden died unexpectedly, De Priest replaced him on the ballot. He was elected to three terms, and was the only black person serving in Congress from 1929 until 1935.

His tenure in Congress began with a potentially embarrassing episode. Each chamber of Congress reserves the right to determine whether a member will be seated. Because the new member had been the subject of a corruption investigation, with several charges outstanding, it was possible that the House leadership would refuse to seat De Priest. Although he was cleared of the charges a few days before the 71st Congress convened on April 15, 1929, De Priest knew that southern members were incensed at his election and might seek any available means to deny him a place in Congress.

Rumor had it that Congresswoman-elect Ruth McCormick, a fellow freshman from Illinois, spoke to her friend, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, wife of House Speaker Nicholas Longworth (as well as daughter of former President Theodore Roosevelt), and asked that De Priest be sworn in quickly to avoid possible machinations by southern representatives. Whether this behind-the scenes lobbying actually occurred remains a matter of no small debate. In any case, Speaker Longworth recognized that De Priest might be subjected to challenges from obstructionist members. Accordingly, he bypassed the traditional method of swearing in new House members by state delegation, and swiftly administered the oath to all incoming members simultaneously. This clever maneuver prevented members who had already been sworn in from objecting to the admission of colleagues sworn in a few minutes later.

Once he was sworn in, De Priest championed anti-lynching legislation. Alas, he could not garner enough political support to secure passage owing to opposition from southern white Democrats. He was more successful in pushing through a measure barring discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal program designed to put unemployed young men to work during the Great Depression.

In 1929, First Lady Lou Hoover ignited a national firestorm when she invited De Priest’s wife, Jessie, to a tea party held for congressional wives in the White House. Although some contemporary journalists and historians mused over the incident and wondered whether the invitation was inadvertent, later analyses indicated that the Hoovers deliberately invited the black congressman’s wife to the event. The tea parties were held in several stages, and Mrs. Hoover was careful to invite sympathetic attendees to the event with Jessie De Priest.

Southern legislators reacted with outrage, for they could not tolerate blacks being treated as social equals in the highest echelons of the federal government. North Carolina Senator Lee S. Overman criticized the episode as “a great blow to the social stability of the South.” Texas Senator Morris Sheppard remarked that “I regret the incident beyond measure. It is recognition of social equality between the white and black races and is fraught with infinite danger to our white civilization.” South Carolina’s reactionary senator, Coleman Blease, reacted with the most venom. Blease had a poem titled “Niggers in the White House”—written in 1901, after President Theodore Roosevelt entertained black educator Booker T. Washington—inserted into a resolution that was recited aloud in the Senate. Republican senators subsequently removed the resolution containing the poem from the Congressional Record, but the point had been made.

A second racial episode occurred during De Priest’s last full year in office, and it involved cafeterias located in the House of Representatives. In the first case, the House provided a private cafeteria for members only. Southern representatives had enjoyed the exclusion of blacks from the cafeteria since no persons of color served in Congress. With De Priest’s election to the House in 1928, southerners feared that the new congressman would intrude on the segregated facility and generate great embarrassment for white members.

Their fears proved to be well-founded. Not only did De Priest deign to eat in the cafeteria, he occasionally brought black constituents and business associates with him. On at least one occasion, he appeared with a group of blacks and whites, triggering southern fears of race mixing. Congressman De Priest was told that he had breached racial etiquette, but otherwise the matter drew little public attention.

The House also operated two segregated public cafeterias. The “whites only” cafeteria refused to admit blacks. The Negro cafeteria stood adjacent to a basement kitchen and serviced Capitol employees as well as the few blacks who visited the House of Representatives. De Priest surely knew of the dual dining facilities when he arrived on Capitol Hill in 1929, but he did not confront the Jim Crow system in the public dining facilities until 1934.

On January 23, 1934, De Priest’s private secretary, a black man named Morris Lewis, entered the cafeteria reserved for whites to eat with his son. Lewis had eaten in the facility previously, but no one had challenged his presence. On this occasion, however, a cashier humiliated Lewis in front of his son by indicating that he could not eat in the restaurant. The secretary was ejected from the premises.

After Lewis complained, Congressman De Priest looked into the matter. He discovered that Lewis had been refused service on the orders of Congressman Lindsay C. Warren of North Carolina, chairman of the House Accounts Committee, which exercised responsibility for operating the capitol’s dining facilities. Incensed, De Priest introduced a resolution requesting that the House of Representatives appoint a committee to investigate the incident.

The matter assumed added importance a month later after a black social worker attempted to eat in the Senate cafeteria, only to be refused service owing to his race. A group of Howard University faculty members and students demonstrated against this action. As the issue gained salience, several groups of prominent blacks challenged segregation in congressional restaurants with varying levels of success throughout 1934.

De Priest took to the House floor on March 21 and excoriated Congressman Warren while again calling for a committee to inquire into segregation in the House cafeteria. De Priest’s original resolution had been referred to the Rules Committee, but the chairman, Congressman William B. Bankhead of Alabama, had not taken up the resolution after more than a month. Under House rules at the time, a discharge petition would bring the resolution out of the committee onto the floor for consideration, but De Priest needed 145 or more votes on the petition. After much maneuvering, he acquired the necessary signatures, and the resolution came before the House of Representatives. On April 25, 1934, the House voted 236 to 114 to appoint a committee to probe the nature and extent of Congressman Warren’s authority to bar blacks from the House cafeteria.

House Speaker Henry T. Rainey of Illinois, a Democrat, appointed a committee of three Democrats and two Republicans to investigate. At the time, the Democrats were overwhelmingly in favor of continuing segregation. Not surprisingly, in May 1934, the committee decided on a straight party vote to uphold racial segregation in House dining facilities. The Republicans issued a minority report, but to no avail. Segregation continued in the House cafeteria until the 1950s.

Oscar De Priest left Congress long before the issue was resolved. Although he attempted to desegregate the House cafeterias, De Priest disappointed civil rights activists because he refused to support federal assistance for the poor. His conservative votes on issues near and dear to progressives led people of color to consolidate behind a more liberal black candidate, Arthur Mitchell, who defeated De Priest in the 1934 election. Mitchell made it clear that he would not pick up where De Priest had left off. “When the smoke has cleared away,” Mitchell said of De Priest’s fight to integrate the House cafeteria, “conditions were worse. Several colored persons lost their jobs as a result of the fight and the colored public is still barred.”

When his congressional career ended, De Priest served again on the Chicago City Council. After he lost his last campaign in 1947, he returned to a real estate practice. Oscar De Priest died on May 12, 1951, from injuries he suffered when he was hit by a bus in January of that year.

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