Oscar DePriest of Illinois

By Ray Hill

The name of Oscar DePriest will surely be unfamiliar to most readers, but during his time, he was a political power in Chicago and was the first Black person to be elected to the City Council in the Windy City. DePriest also served three terms in Congress as a Republican. Dignified with a head of white hair, Oscar DePriest was frequently the subject of controversy. When DePriest died, the Black Dispatch, published a flowery editorial noting Oscar DePriest was “the first black man to return to Congress following the political conspiracy between the North and the South during the Hayes administration to re-establish white rule in Dixie.” The Black Dispatch editorial remembered DePriest as “a rugged, unpolished character” who stood up to the segregationists in Congress.

Born on a backwoods farm in Alabama, Oscar DePriest early on moved to Salina, Kansas, where he was educated. Eventually, DePriest moved to Chicago where he worked as a plasterer and interior decorator. Oscar DePriest became interested in politics and as one editorial noted, “He really went places.”

How he got to those places was due to his organizational skills and ability to deliver the Black vote in elections. DePriest became an important and recognized leader in the Black community, which was rapidly growing in Chicago. In a city where patronage, appointments, and the ability to get things done made a real difference, Oscar DePriest became a power in his own community.

Oscar DePriest won a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1904 and served two terms before being caught in an intra-party squabble that caused him to lose his office. For seven years, DePriest tended to his real estate business, which made him well-to-do.

DePriest was elected an Alderman in the Chicago City Council, a position of very real prestige and authority at the time, in 1916. As the late Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill once said, “All politics is local” and that was true for Oscar DePriest.

The Alderman ran a successful real estate business while serving the people of his district. The first political tempest to roil DePriest’s life occurred two years after he had been elected to the Chicago City Council in 1918. DePriest cried his political opponents were trying to unseat him and he employed Clarence Darrow, perhaps the most famous legal mind of his time, and Edward Morris who represented him in court. DePriest survived the scandal.

That scandal did manage to eliminate DePriest from the Chicago City Council. After having been indicted for accepting money from gamblers, DePriest relied upon Darrow to keep him out of jail. Instead of seeking reelection, DePriest stated, “I shall devote myself unreservedly to proving my innocence and restoring my good name in this community.” Darrow won an acquittal for the Alderman.

In his largely Black ward, DePriest wielded enormous influence for decades. In 1928, DePriest won the GOP nomination for Congress from the First District of Illinois. That was a big year for Republicans when Herbert Hoover routed Al Smith for the White House. Oscar DePriest was the only Black member of Congress and the first member of his race to serve in the House of Representatives since Reconstruction.

To retain his influence inside the Black community, Oscar DePriest cultivated strong relationships with Congressman Martin Madden and sometime Mayor William Hale Thompson. It was Mayor Thompson who muscled opposition out of the way to give DePriest the GOP nomination for Congress in 1928 when incumbent Martin Madden died suddenly while seeking a thirteenth term in the House.

The 1928 campaign was a free-for-all contest between DePriest, a Democrat and no less than three independent candidates. DePriest won.

Winning the 1928 election meant Oscar DePriest was the first Black to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from a Northern state.

DePriest represented the First Congressional District of Illinois, which was centered in the heart of Chicago and took in part of the city’s South Side and the Loop. Always controversial, even in the Black community there was a division about the service of Congressman Oscar DePriest. The incumbent was challenged inside the 1930 GOP primary by Roscoe Conkling Simmons. Simmons was an orator of note and frequently imported by the Republican Party during elections to reach out to the Black community in various cities and states. Named for the famous United States senator from New York, Simmons and DePriest intensely disliked one another. Simmons had carved out a niche for himself after having been a journalist as a political activist and speaker. A nephew of Booker T. Washington through his father’s third wife, it was through his uncle’s influence he became an office messenger at age twelve for perhaps the most powerful Republican of the day, wealthy United States Senator Mark A. Hanna of Ohio.

Oscar DePriest crushed Simmons inside the Republican primary, along with three other challengers and once again faced white Democrat Harry Baker in the general election. As Congressman DePriest campaigned for reelection and the grip of the Great Depression tightened, he spoke at a high school auditorium in Decatur, Illinois. “There are 3,000,000 unemployed in the country,” DePriest thundered. “Immigration should be restricted. Why should more people be brought into the country when there aren’t jobs enough to go around for those we have here?

“A total of 56,000 Mexicans entered the country last year, competing with American labor, and accepting wages no American family could live on,” DePriest told his listeners. “I hope the time will come when I can vote (to) bar to all immigrant labor.”

During the course of his remarks, the congressman also made a plea on behalf of the Decatur Children’s Home, an orphanage for Black children. DePriest said the state legislature should help in maintaining the home. “It would be better for the state to spend money to make useful citizens out of children than to spend it correcting criminals,” DePriest opined.

During the general election, Oscar DePriest won headlines through a bizarre murder and extortion plot against him. A self-described “secret six” committee intended to extort $10,000 (more than $177,000 today) from DePriest; if the congressman failed to pay the money, he would be murdered. At least that is what a letter sent to DePriest had stated. According to the letter, the committee had been offered $5,000 to kill the congressman; they would spare his life if he offered them double the going rate for killing Oscar DePriest. Should he agree to pay the money, DePriest was told to take out an advertisement in a local newspaper. The missive was signed, “the Brooklyn Rats.”

A trap was laid for the extortionists/would-be murderers and two men were caught as a result. One was Julius Link, a politician from Chicago’s West Side, and the other was Solly Lason, who drove a milk wagon.

DePriest put the ad in the newspaper as instructed and promptly received a letter via special delivery telling him to remain in his office. He would receive further instructions, the letter stated. That Friday DePriest got another letter telling him to take the $10,000 in cash to a particular spot near Douglas Park, where he would find further instructions. Following all the instructions of the extortionists, DePriest went to the spot, where he found a note telling him to leave the money in a small shack that stood nearby. DePriest did as he was told. While the package the congressman left was a large one, it contained only $200 and was watched by detectives disguised as railroad men working in the area.

Early Saturday morning, a milk wagon appeared and came to a halt in front of the shack. The driver came down off the wagon and entered the shack and emerged carrying the package containing the extortion money. Later that day police arrested Solly Lason, the driver, and Julius Link.

Congressman Oscar DePriest won the 1930 general election easily, polling almost 60% of the vote against Harry Baker and three independent candidates.

Harry Baker was apparently determined to win a seat in the House and sought a third rematch with Congressman Oscar DePriest in the 1932 election. With the First District, like the rest of the country suffering from the Depression, DePriest’s margin of victory was reduced, but the congressman still won with roughly 55% of the vote.

During his time in Congress, Oscar DePriest passed an amendment forbidding discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was also Oscar DePriest who raised hell when his secretary (Chief of Staff) Morris Lewis and Lewis’ son were denied service in the House restaurant. As a result, only Members of Congress could be served.

Baker was running for Congress for a fourth time in 1934 when he died suddenly from heart disease. The Democrats wisely nominated Arthur W. Mitchell, who was also Black. Mitchell eked out a narrow victory over DePriest in the 1934 general election. DePriest tried to regain his seat in the House in 1936, which was the nadir of the New Deal era for Republicans. DePriest lost again.

Another effort to return to the halls of Congress saw Oscar DePriest run third inside the Republican primary; the top three vote-getters ran within a few hundred votes of one another, but the winner was William L. Dawson. Ironically, Dawson went on to lose the general election to Congressman Arthur Mitchell. Yet Dawson would succeed Mitchell eventually and remain in Congress for the rest of his life, as a Democrat.

After losing a race for Alderman in the Chicago city election and yet another GOP primary for Congress in 1940, Oscar DePriest was looking like a perennial candidate. The old political warhorse had one more winning campaign in him. DePriest challenged Alderman Benjamin Grant, to whom he had lost four years earlier in the 1943 election. Although the election was supposed to be a nonpartisan affair, both political parties frequently gave endorsements to various candidates. Grant had the endorsement of the powerful Chicago Democratic organization, which at the time was run by Mayor Edward Kelly and veteran political boss Patrick Nash. DePriest had the endorsement of the local Republican Party. The Third Ward was heavily Black and all of the candidates seeking to represent the district on the Chicago Board of Aldermen were Black.

DePriest’s candidacy was frequently derided due to his continuous habit of seeking elective office, as well as his age. DePriest was seventy-two years old in 1943. Virtually everyone was stunned when the old campaigner squeaked out a victory over Alderman Grant by 461 votes.

DePriest gave credit to “the aid of the younger workers” who had helped him win the general election. DePriest promised, “I shall fight as always for the good of my ward and my city and the rights of my people.”

“In the council my Republicanism will in no wise be lessened by the fact that I was elected on a nonpartisan ticket,” DePriest said. “I am too thoroughly steeped in party interest to do otherwise.”

By 1947, Alderman Oscar DePriest had been disavowed by the Republican Party during his reelection campaign. Local Republicans complained DePriest had accepted too many favors from the administration of Mayor Ed Kelly, which included “a score of jobs.” The party leadership read DePriest out of the Chicago Republican Party and appointed a committee to handle patronage requests for the Third Ward.

Seventeen candidates vied for the seat held by DePriest and once shunned by his own party, DePriest lost inside the primary. It was finally the end of the former congressman’s long political career.

While crossing a Chicago street not far from his home, the 79-year-old former congressman was struck by a bus. DePriest filed a $25,000 lawsuit against the Chicago Motor Coach Company. DePriest had suffered a concussion after having been hit by the bus and was believed to have recovered, but apparently was never quite well. A few months later, Oscar DePriest fell into a coma and was rushed to Provident Hospital where he died.

© 2023 Ray Hill