Whom Should We Honor During Black History Month?

by Burt on February 25, 2013

Who was the first black congressman elected in the 20th century?

a. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
b. Charley Rangel
c. Oscar De Priest

The correct answer is Oscar De Priest, Republican congressman from Chicago for three terms, 1929-1935. De Priest was a path breaking advocate of civil rights for black Americans–and equal opportunity for all Americans through limited government and low taxes. He is worthy of honor, and his story is worth remembering.

De Priest was born in Alabama to former slaves, but his parents migrated north and young Oscar eventually settled in Chicago. He started in the housing business first as a painter and then as a buyer and seller of real estate. He helped many blacks settle in Chicago, and his popularity won him a seat on the Chicago City Council as the city’s first black alderman. In 1928, Mayor William Thompson chose De Priest to run for the vacant House seat from Illinois’s first congressional district.

De Priest ran a fine race and won the first of three terms, during which time he used his influence to expand opportunities for black Americans. For example, De Priest insisted on eating in the segregated dining rooms that other congressmen frequented. At one point, he successfully challenged an Alabama senator who tried to keep him out of the Senate restaurant. He also insisted that his secretary, and other blacks in Washington, be allowed to eat with him in the House restaurant. “If we allow segregation and the denial of constitutional rights under the Dome of the Capitol,” De Priest asked, “where in God’s name will we get them?”

The House Democrats were able to stop De Priest by arguing the House restaurant should not be open to the public. The Democrats were also able to block an anti-lynching bill that De Priest strongly supported. But in 1933 he helped to secure a law that integrated the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of FDR’s New Deal programs.

In 1934, the Democrats targeted De Priest for defeat, and he had to run against a black Democrat, Arthur Mitchell. De Priest had been skeptical of FDR’s strategy to spend his way out of the Great Depression. Since the Chicago congressman had been successful in business, he knew that higher taxes would stifle economic recovery and growth. De Priest lost the election and left office in 1935—the same year that FDR was able to increase the tax rate on top incomes to 79%.

In a somewhat similar manner, black congressman Allan West (R-FL), was elected to the House in 2010, but lost re-election and left office in 2013, the same year President Obama was able to raise the tax rate on the rich. With De Priest and West out of Congress, both free spending presidents had a greater chance to spend more federal dollars to win the votes of new groups in society.

De Priest had to leave Congress, but during World War II he won election again to Chicago’s City Council—and he outlasted FDR, who died in 1945 with De Priest still holding elective office.

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