Oscar De Priest entered the 71st Congress as the only African American in the House of Representatives. In fact, his election ended an almost 30-year absence of African-American representation in Congress. Although he sought to represent all residents of his Chicago-centered district regardless of race, his unique position in Congress made many African Americans around the country feel that he also represented them. Throughout his political career, De Priest confronted racial discrimination, including in the Capitol itself as a Member of Congress.
Before De Priest even started his first term as a Representative in 1929, some reporters and Members speculated that the House might attempt to prevent him from taking his seat. The Representative assigned to the office next to De Priest in the House Office Building refused to take it. Southern Congressmen did not want to sit on committee with him. His wife’s attendance at a customary social tea for congressional spouses hosted by First Lady Lou Hoover at the White House caused a national scandal and an outpouring of racist vitriol directed at the Hoovers and the De Priests. The discrimination De Priest faced did not subside once he settled in as a Member. In 1934, five years after his arrival in Congress, De Priest confronted another high-profile instance of racial discrimination.
As discriminatory Jim Crow policies became entrenched in America in the decades before De Priest arrived in Washington, segregation also became entrenched in the House. The House’s restaurants were no exception. When De Priest arrived at the House of Representatives, there were three options available for taking meals in the Capitol: a Members-only dining room, a public restaurant, and another smaller public restaurant in the basement for African-American staff and visitors.
As a Representative, De Priest often ate his meals in the Member’s Dining Room. Although it was reserved for Members, they could bring guests, usually constituents or staff. De Priest sometimes ate with his private secretary, Morris Lewis, who was also African American, or African-American constituents. At the time, the private secretary was an important role in a Member’s office, akin to what is now typically called the chief of staff. Although only barely tolerated by some of the other diners, management allowed this arrangement. Some Representatives patronized the Senate’s dining room to avoid eating in the same room with De Priest.
Lewis sometimes dined in the main public restaurant (also called the grill or café) when he was not with De Priest. On January 23, 1934, the manager of this restaurant asked Lewis and his son to leave. Despite having dined there occasionally for years, the restaurant’s manager told Lewis that the restaurant did not serve African Americans. When Lewis questioned him on whose authority he could be ejected, the manager referred Lewis to North Carolina Representative Lindsay Warren, chairman of the Committee on Accounts, which oversaw the restaurants in the House. Following the incident, Warren issued a statement carried by the newspapers: “The restaurant has been operated by the Committee on accounts since 1921. It has never served Negro employees or visitors, nor will it so long as I have anything to do with it.”
The next day, De Priest introduced House Resolution 236 calling on the House to investigate the authority of the Committee on Accounts to manage the House restaurants and enforce discrimination in them. The resolution was on behalf of the “12,000,000 loyal colored citizens of the United States” and “their forebears,” who “contributed of might and main, blood and sinew, in the development of this country.” The House referred the resolution to the Rules Committee.
The Rules Committee, chaired by Representative William Bankhead of Alabama, would not report on the resolution, so De Priest, determined to bring the measure to the floor for a vote, used a discharge petition to force action on the resolution. A discharge petition signed by a majority of Representatives circumvented the normal procedural process for a bill’s consideration, allowing the full House to debate and vote on the legislation.
During the months De Priest lobbied for consideration of his resolution by the full House, several more African Americans experienced racial discrimination in the public House restaurant. A demonstration opposing discriminatory practices in congressional restaurants by 30 students from the historically black Howard University ended with a physical altercation and arrest of one of the protestors. “I expect,” De Priest declaimed on the House Floor, “as long as I am a Member of this House, to contend for every right and every privilege every other American citizen enjoys; and if I did not, I would not be worthy of the trust reposed in me by my constituents who have sent me here.”
On the heels of his speech, De Priest’s discharge petition obtained the remaining signatures needed to reach a majority of Members, compelling the House to consider his resolution.
A month later, the House finally voted, deciding in favor of De Priest’s resolution and forming a select committee to examine discrimination in the House restaurant. John Miller of Arkansas chaired the committee, joined by two other Democrats, Francis Walter of Pennsylvania and Compton White of Idaho, and Republicans Patrick Moynihan of Illinois and Louis McFadden of Pennsylvania. Hearings were held in May and June 1934. Members of the Committee on Accounts testified, as well Lewis and De Priest. “My point,” Lewis attested, “is that as an American citizen entitled to the facilities that are afforded to a citizen of the United States of America, I have the right to go into any public facility that is provided by the Nation.”
The 1930s were a period of party realignment nationally, as African Americans began to move away from their historic allegiance to the Republican Party, long viewed as champion of their civil rights, toward the Democratic party which held out the possibility for greater political mobility and also some (though limited) programs for economic relief during the throes of the Great Depression. However, at the time of the select committee’s formation, many Democrats represented Southern states, where racism and segregation were entrenched. Therefore, the party makeup of the committee, three Democrats and two Republicans, ensured that it did not seriously probe the incident or the underlying policy. It reaffirmed the authority of the Committee on Accounts to manage the House restaurants and largely refused to address the actual issue of discrimination. The committee also concluded that because all Members and their guests were served in the Members-only restaurant without discrimination there was no real problem, and that the public restaurant in the House, was not, in fact, open to the public. This was reinforced with a sign that appeared outside the formerly “public” restaurant declaring it was also for Members only; however, the white public continued to be served there in spite of the new signage.
De Priest lost his election that year to Arthur Mitchell, signaling the start of black political realignment in Chicago. As the first African American elected as a Democrat to the House, Mitchell was a striking counterpoint to De Priest. When he took office in January 1935 he declared: “I don’t plan to spend my time fighting out the question of whether a Negro may eat his lunch at the Capitol or whether he may be shaved in the House barber shop.”
Segregation of the House restaurants met its match under the watch of New York Representative Adam Clayton Powell, who picked up where De Priest left off.
Sources: H. Res. 236, 73d Cong., 2nd sess. (1934); H. Res. 254, 67th Cong., 2nd sess. (1921); Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (21 March 1934): 5047–5048; Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 April 1934): 7359-7361; Hearings before the Special Committee to Investigate Management and Control of the House Restaurant, Management and Control of the House Restaurant, 73rd Cong., 2nd sess. (1934); Special Committee to Investigate Management and Control of the House Restaurant, Authority of Committee on Accounts, House of Representatives, 73d Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rpt. 1920 (1934); Hartford Courant, 24 January 1934; New York Times, 10 May 1968; Washington Post, 17 March 1934, 15 January 2016; District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson., Inc., 346 U.S. 100 (1953); Annette B. Dunlap, “Tea and Equality,” Prologue (Summer 2015); Kenneth Eugene Mann, “Oscar Stanton DePriest: Persuasive Agent for the Black Masses,” Negro History Bulletin 35, no. 6 (October 1972): 134; Elliott M. Rudwick, “Oscar De Priest and the Jim Crow Restaurant in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Journal of Negro Education 35, no. 1 (Winter 1966).Follow @USHouseHistory