DePriest attempts to end Jim Crow at House restaurant: 1934
Oscar DePriest was selected to fill a vacancy on the ballot in Illinois as a Republican for Congress in 1928 and he was elected the first African American U.S. representative outside the South and the first in the 20th Century. He is shown here is a photograph circa 1930.
DePriest was born in Alabama to former slaves who were freed during the Civil War. In the period after federal troops were withdrawn from Alabama in 1874, DePriest’s parents stayed in Alabama as white supremacists consolidated their rule. However, continuing violence against African Americans, including on the DePriests’ doorstep, caused them to flee in 1878.
DePriest went to Salina Normal School in Kansas where he studied bookkeeping and teaching. Moving to Chicago, he made a fortune in construction, real estate and the stock market.
He was elected in 1914 as Chicago’s first black alderman and built an African American political machine under the patronage of Republican Mayor William Thompson.
DePriest was an advocate of opening trade unions to African Americans and assisted an ultimately unsuccessful effort in the early 1920s to recruit African Americans working in Chicago’s meatpacking plants into the local union.
DePriest was a conservative Republican but survived Roosevelt’s landslide election in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression that elected a heavily Democratic Congress. DePriest’s political machine was able to overcome a Democratic edge in party registration within his district and retain black Republican votes that were shifting to the Democratic column elsewhere.
He is credited with speaking out forcefully against Jim Crow during speeches in the South, but was not a believer in the direct action that was then being put into practice by communists and other radicals and being adopted locally by the liberal New Negro Alliance.
During his tenure in Congress he introduced civil rights bills, but had little to show for it except the requirement that the Civilian Conservation Corps ban discrimination based on “race, color, or creed.” However the CCC was initially set-up as Jim Crow in the South and by 1935 this was extended across the nation.
In 1934 his aide, Morris Lewis, was refused service in the House of Representatives public restaurant. DePriest introduced a resolution to “investigate” the authority of the House Accounts committee to impose Jim Crow.
He rejected the assistance of a direct action campaign being waged to integrate the restaurants and attempted to end the discrimination with an inside strategy.
He was easily outmaneuvered by Speaker of the House Thomas Rainey (D-Il) who let the resolution die as the House adjourned for the session. Jim Crow continued at the House public restaurant for almost 20 more years.
For a detailed account of the fight to end Jim Crow at the U.S. Capitol’s restaurants, see washingtonspark.wordpress.com/2018/02/26/origins-of-the-c...
For related images, see flic.kr/s/aHsmcArGZz
The photographer is unknown. The image is a Scurlock Studio photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History: Archives Center.