On Wednesday, February 13, the U.S. Capitol Society will present its annual African American History Month lecture in Washington, DC. This year, Historian of the House of Representatives Matthew Wasniewski will discuss the life and career of Chicago politician and Member of Congress Oscar Stanton De Priest, the only black Member of Congress when he was elected and the first from the North. We’ll leave it to Dr. Wasniewski to dig into the details; instead, here are a few interesting tidbits about De Priest’s time in Congress and Washington.
*When the 71st Congress arrived in Washington in April 1929, the House took the oath of office en masse for the first time. Speaker Nicholas Longworth altered the tradition of swearing in Members by state delegation in large part to prevent any challenges to the legality of De Priest’s seating. After a few varied years, in 1937 the en masse oath-taking became standard.
*First Lady Lou Hoover invited De Priest’s wife, Jessie, to a tea for congressional wives. The invitation provoked national discussion and outrage from many, but Hoover navigated the rocky shoals of race and segregation carefully; the reception was broken up into several sections, and Jessie De Priest attended the smallest event of four. (The White House Historical Association has much more on this topic.) Oscar De Priest challenged the conventions of segregation in several areas of the Capitol as well, including the House’s public restaurant.
*De Priest won several re-election campaigns, but lost in 1934 to another African American politician, Democrat Arthur Mitchell. It was an unusual campaign because both candidates were black; Mitchell became the first black Democrat in Congress.
Want to learn more? The noon lecture on Wednesday is free and open to the public, but we do ask that you pre-register. You can find more information on our website. For more about De Priest, read his profile based on Black Americans in Congress 1870-2007, or this House Historical Highlight on De Priest’s challenge of segregation in the House dining room.