Civil Rights Tour: Political Empowerment - Oscar De Priest, Lone Legislator

419 U Street NW

Oscar Stanton De Priest (1871-1951) represented Chicago’s South Side in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1929 to 1935. He was the first African American Congressman in the 20th century and the first in 28 years. He was also the first-ever black Congressman from the North, and the first in what would be an unbroken line of African American representation of Illinois’s 1st Congressional District. (Rep. Harold Washington held the seat from 1981 to 1983 when he resigned to become Chicago’s mayor, and Rep. Bobby Rush, the incumbent in 2018, first won the seat in 1993.)

As the only African American Congressman during his tenure, De Priest symbolically represented all African Americans—and, as the son of freedmen, he embodied hope and the possibility of change. De Priest was an outspoken critic of segregation and introduced several anti-discrimination bills: to reduce the number of House seats for states that disenfranchised African Americans; to provide pensions for elderly former slaves; and to hold states responsible for preventing lynching, among others. Most of his proposals failed to pass, but in 1933 he succeeded in attaching an anti-discrimination amendment to the law that established the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government program that helped relieve the widespread unemployment of the Great Depression. Locally, he increased Howard University’s federal funding.

A Republican, De Priest opposed many of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal relief programs, and that stance cost him his seat in the election of 1934. A black Democrat, Arthur Mitchell, took his place in 1935. De Priest and his wife Jessie De Priest lived at 419 U Street NW during their six years in Washington.

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