Historical Highlights

The birth and career of Representative Oscar S. De Priest of Illinois

March 09, 1871
The birth and career of Representative Oscar S. De Priest of Illinois Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Representative Oscar De Priest addressed a group of supporters at Paul Laurence Dunbar Junior High in Dayton, Ohio. Breaking racial barriers when he became the first African American elected to Congress in nearly three decades, De Priest served as a symbol of hope for African Americans and spoke at venues across the nation.
On this date, Oscar Stanton De Priest, the first African American elected to Congress during the 20th century, was born. The son of former slaves, De Priest lived in Alabama before moving west and then north. Eventually settling in Chicago, De Priest utilized the city’s budding machine organization to facilitate his foray into politics. He rose through the party ranks to become the first black alderman in Chicago. When Martin Madden, the influential Chicago Representative and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, died suddenly in April 1928, De Priest, with the backing of the Republican machine, became the party nominee to succeed Madden. “I’ve been elected to congress the same as any other member,” De Priest exclaimed after narrowly winning election to the 71st Congress (1929–1931). “I’m going to have the rights of every other congressman—no more and no less—if it’s in the congressional barber shop or at a White House tea.” As the only African American in Congress during his three terms, De Priest discovered that in many respects he represented not just his Chicago district, but blacks across the nation. With little institutional support for his efforts to promote a civil rights agenda—including his challenge of the informal regulations forbidding black Representatives from using Capitol facilities reserved for Members—De Priest made scant legislative headway in Congress. However, the Illinois Representative became a national symbol of hope for African Americans and prepared the way for future black Members of Congress. Ultimately, De Priest’s inability to provide economic relief to his constituents during the Great Depression and his constituents' shift to the Democratic Party frustrated his bid for a fourth term in the House.

Related Highlight Subjects

Fast Facts

Review a brief (PDF) synopsis of Black Americans who have served in Congress. Joseph Rainey, William Dawson, and Gus Hawkins are a few of the African-American Members who made history in the House.

More >