Oscar Stanton DePriest was a Republican Party leader and real estate investor in Chicago early in the 20th Century. He was the first African American elected to the Cook County Board in 1904 and the first African American elected to the Chicago City Council in 1915. He was also the first African American elected to Congress from any Northern state in 1928. Before DePriest, almost all black members of Congress had been elected by reconstruction governments in the South. When he took office in March 1929, Congressman DePriest was the first African-American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives since the retirement of Rep. George Henry White (R-North Carolina) twenty-eight years before in 1901. The vast majority of African-American elected officials at any level in the North between 1865 and 1932 were members of the Republican Party which they saw then as the party of Emancipation, the party of Lincoln, and the party of what was then called Negro opportunity.
Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, who had served from 1913 to 1921, was a liberal and internationalist in many ways and the visionary behind the idea of the League of Nations. But in racial matters Wilson was a disaster for Negroes. Although Wilson was a former president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey when he was elected, his family was originally from Georgia and he was born in Virginia where his 19th Century social attitudes were shaped by the Jim Crow attitudes of the South. After some progress for blacks in federal hiring policies under Republican Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, President Wilson made segregaton worse in government hiring and angered black leaders who thought they had earned better treatment from their country due to honorable and faithful service to the U.S. Army in World War I. It was not until the first mid-term election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 during the Depression that African American voters in Illinois and nationally along with many poor white people began to change allegiance to the Democratic Party in large numbers.
Oscar DePriest was born in Florence, Alabama on March 9, 1871, the year of the Chicago fire. His mother was a former slave. The family moved to Salina, Kansas when Oscar was seven and he attended the Salina Normal School and worked as a house painter and decorator. Oscar moved to Chicago in 1889 at the age of 18 for better opportunities and became a real estate broker. He served on the Cook County Board from 1904 to 1908.
In 1928, Rep. Martin Madden represented the first district of Chicago in Congress. Madden was Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and suddenly died of a heart attack in that hearing room just after a meeting in April 1928. A very hard-fought special Republican primary election pitted Oscar DePriest, who was endorsed by the Illinois Republican State Central Committee, against William Harrison who was a candidate backed by GOP political boss and Chicago Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson. DePriest won the Republican Primary and then defeated Democrat Harry Baker in the fall election by 3,000 votes.
During his six years in Congress, DePriest pushed for a national anti-lynching law and federal election reforms to help African-Americans obtain full and fair voting rights in all states. He also pushed for funding of traditional Negro colleges. He spoke often against racial segregation and discrimination and became a lightning rod for almost any issue affecting race. In the South, members of the Ku Klux Klan burned him in effigy.
DePriest was defeated for reelection in 1934 by another African American candidate endorsed by the Democratic Kelly-Nash Machine which came to power when Mayor Anton Cermak was killed while riding with FDR in Miami in February 1933. DePriest also ran for again for his old seat in Congress in 1936 but lost that campaign as well. He was a delegate that year to the Republican National Convention and he supported Frank Knox, the publisher of the Chicago Daily News, to be the GOP nominee for Vice President on a ticket with Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas. In an astute bipartisan move in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Frank Knox to serve as Secretary of the Navy and he was serving in that post on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941.
During his first year in Congress, DePriest was the only black member of the House. A controversy arose in 1929 over the fact that Mrs. Herbert Hoover, the First Lady, decided to invite all wives of Members of Congress to The White House for tea. Mrs. Hoover insisted on including Mrs. DePriest on the guest list since she was the wife of a Member of Congress from Illinois. In those days of active segregation in Washington, still a Southern city below the Mason-Dixon Line, the invitation to a black woman caused a social scandal of sorts. Because Mrs. DePriest was invited, wives of Members of Congress from the South threatened to boycott the tea, held on four different days to accommodate 435 wives. Newspapers both North and South said in editorials that it was inappropriate for a Negro woman to be invited to such a place of honor. The boycott fell apart, Mrs. Hoover, a Quaker, got her way and Mrs. DePriest attended the final tea without incident. But in Chicago's black community that year, Mrs. DePriest became a bigger celebrity than her husband and was invited by all sorts of black church groups and women's clubs to tell about her tea and meeting The First Lady at The White House. Congressman and Mrs. DePriest lived at that time at 4536-38 South Grand Boulevard, now Martin Luther King Boulevard. The home was made a national landmark in 1965. They also had a second home at 419 U Street, NW in Washington, DC.
After 1936, Oscar DePriest continued to work in Chicago real estate and remained a Republican party leader. He served several years as Vice President of the Cook County Republican Central Committee and also served as GOP Ward Committeeman for the Third Ward. During World War II when he was in his seventies, DePriest was again elected as an alderman in the Chicago City Council and served his second tour of duty from 1943 to 1947 in that legislative chamber. He died in Chicago on May 12, 1951 at the age of 80 and he is buried in Graceland Cemetery. Oscar DePriest is not well known by young people today but he broke many racial barriers in Illinois and national politics.