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Oscar DePriest and Black Agency in American Politics, 1928–1934

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 December 2023

GREYSON TEAGUE*
Affiliation:
Ohio State University

Abstract

Currently, much of the literature surrounding Black politics in the 1920s and 1930s understates the role that Black citizens and politicians played in challenging Jim Crow and white supremacy at the national level. Instead, different factors like the “cage” that white Southerners placed on Civil Rights legislation or the influence that New Deal programs had on electoral decisions in the Black community. After realignment, Black Americans and their allies were then able to launch more effective challenges against white supremacy. Although these narratives contain much explanatory power, oftentimes they overlook critical aspects of Black politics during this period that complicate this narrative. Examining the career of Oscar DePriest, the first Black congressman elected in the twentieth Century, this article argues that Black citizens and their representatives were able to explicitly affect politics at the local, state, and federal levels through DePriest’s career prior to realignment.

Type
Article
Copyright
© Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press, 2023

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References

NOTES

1 Weiss, Nancy Joan, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Sitkoff, Harvard, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978)Google Scholar; Schickler, Eric, Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016)Google Scholar. See also Cowie, Jefferson, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press, 2016), 124–32Google Scholar; Kazin, Michael, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), 172203 Google Scholar.

2 Bateman, David A., Katznelson, Ira, and Lapinski, John, Southern Nation: Congress and White Supremacy after Reconstruction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018)Google Scholar; Katznelson, Ira, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2014)Google Scholar. Other scholars also emphasize how Republicans abandoned Black interests. See Frymer, Paul, Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 8185 Google Scholar; Jenkins, Jeffery A. and Peck, Justin, Congress and the First Civil Rights Era, 1861-1918 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021)Google Scholar.

3 Schickler gives the most detailed overview of this, but it is also found in narratives on labor and Civil Rights history. See also Hall, Jacquelyn, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (March 2005): 1233–63Google Scholar; Cohen, Lizabeth, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)Google Scholar; Lawson, Steven F., Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America since 1941, 4th ed. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015)Google Scholar; Zieger, Robert H., Minchin, Timothy J., and Gall, Gilbert J., American Workers, American Unions: The Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries, 4th ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014)Google Scholar. There is also a subset of literature that details how the contradictions of the New Deal eventually led to its undermining, especially in urban and suburban areas after World War II. See Sugrue, Thomas J., The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, first classics, Princeton ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014)Google Scholar; Self, Robert O., American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Highsmith, Andrew R., Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)Google Scholar.

4 Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 210.

5 Bunche, Ralph J. and Grantham, Dewey W., Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR: A Carnegie-Myrdal Report Emphasizing the American South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 93 Google Scholar.

6 Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 45.

7 Schickler refers to race as the New Deal’s “blind spot” in early years because the liberals of the time simply did not see race as part of the broader liberal agenda at that time along with the need to placate white Southerners. Schickler, Racial Realignment, 27–49.

8 Nordin, Dennis S., The New Deal’s Black Congressman: A Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Manning, Christopher, William, L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009)Google Scholar. One work that does examine DePriest’s career through the lens of Civil Rights, see Brandon, Michael Edward, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen: Migration, Ghettoization, and the Origins of Civil Rights Politics (Gainesville, University of Florida, 2015)Google Scholar. Brandon, however, while focusing on the consequences of the Great Migration in examining DePriest, argues that DePriest was part of a “bitter pill” that Black residents had to swallow to have some semblance of representation. DePriest, then, while important as a trend toward Black political power and agency, had no lasting influence beyond being a starting point.

9 Francis, Megan Ming, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 20 Google Scholar; Keneshia Nicole Grant, The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020), 11 Google Scholar; Materson, Lisa G., For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009)Google Scholar. Other works that examine the influence of the Great Migration on Black political power are Henry Lee Moon, Balance of Power: The Negro Vote (New York: Doubleday, 1948); Marble, Manning, William, L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership Chicago: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009)Google Scholar; Gosnell, Harold, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967)Google Scholar; Marble, Manning, “Black Power in Chicago: An Historical Overview of Class Stratification and Electoral Politics ln a Black Urban Community,” Review of Radical Political Economics 17, no. 3 (June 1985): 157–82Google Scholar; Reed, Christopher, “‘Black Chicago Political Realignment during the Great Depression and New Deal,’” Illinois Historical Journal 78, no. 4 (1985): 242–56Google Scholar.

10 Francis, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, 23.

11 Katznelson, Fear Itself.

12 Johnson, Kimberly, “The Color Line and the State: Race and American Political Development,” in Valelly, Richard M., Mettler, Suzanne, and Lieberman, Robert C., ed., The Oxford Handbook of American Political Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 598600 Google Scholar.

13 Katznelson, Fear Itself; Bateman, Katznelson, and Lapinski, Southern Nation. Cowie, The Great Exception. For how the white South acted in unison on matters of race while still having diversity in other areas see: Caughey, Devin, The Unsolid South: Mass Politics and National Representation in a One-Party Enclave (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 3742 Google Scholar, 67–105.

14 Berrey, Stephen A., The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 2Google Scholar.

15 Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago, 164–70; Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 39–40; Will Cooley, Moving up, Moving out: The Rise of the Black Middle Class in Chicago (DeKalb: NIU Press, 2018), 30. For more on Black migrations out of the South during this period, see Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005), 317–63; Grant, The Great Migration and the Democratic Party, 42–44; James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, paperback ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 132–39.

16 Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago, 167–80; Mia Bay, To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 291; Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race, 95–98; Grossman, Land of Hope, 130, 169.

17 Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 136–37; Chicago Defender, April 26, 1921, 1.

18 Grossman, Land of Hope; Grant, The Great Migration and the Democratic Party. Examples of why migrants left the South can be found in Emmett Scott, “Letters of Negro Migrants of 1916-1918,” The Journal of Negro History 4, no. 3 (July 1919): 290–340.

19 Perry Duis, “Arthur W. Mitchell, New Deal Negro in Congress” (Master’s thesis, University of Chicago, 1966), 3–14; Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago, 188.

20 I’m specifically referring to Grant’s idea of Black Balance of Power (BOP). Black BOP, as Grant calculates it, occurs when the Black voting age population is greater than the margin of victory in an election. Adjustments can be made depending on how much turnout one wants to assume among the Black population. Grant, The Great Migration and the Democratic Party, 26–32, 137–38. She borrows this idea from Moon, Balance of Power: The Negro Vote.

21 Manning, William L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership, 61. For more on the Dyer bill, see Francis, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, 98–126.

22 Manning, William L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership, 56–61.

23 Chicago Defender, March 7, 1928, 1; Light: America’s News Magazine (Chicago) 4, no. 20 (April 7, 1928): 12.

24 Quoted in Manning, William L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership, 63; Western Outlook, May 5, 1928, 5.

25 Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago, 181–82; Manning, William L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership, 64–65; Western Outlook, May 12, 1928, 8; Plaindealer (Topeka, KS), May 25, 1928, 1.

26 “Democrat May Oppose Oscar DePriest,” The Pittsburg Courier, August 4, 1928, 4; Negro World (New York), October 28, 1928, 1; Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 7–9.

27 Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race, 182.

28 Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 10–12.

29 United States House of Representatives, Election Statistics, 1920 to Present (History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, n.d.), http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.

30 Harold, Gosnell, “How the Negro Votes in Chicago,” National Municipal Review, no. 22 (May 1933): 241–43Google Scholar; Plaindealer, March 15, 1929.

31 For more on this, see Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

32 Plaindealer, February 1, 1929, 3.

33 Lautier, Louis, “What May Happen When DePriest Presents Credentials as Congressman,” The New York Amsterdam News, November 21, 1928, 2.

34 Jenkins and Peck, Congress and the First Civil Rights Era, 1861-1918, 277.

35 Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago, 183–84; “DePriest Charges Dropped in Chicago,” The Washington Post, April 14, 1929, M16; “Oath of Office,” History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, https://history.house.gov/Institution/Origins-Development/Oath-of-Office/.

36 Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race, 193–203.

37 Day, David S., “Herbert Hoover and Racial Politics: The DePriest Incident,” The Journal of Negro History 65, no. 1 (January 1980): 78 Google Scholar, https://doi.org/10.2307/3031544.

38 Lily-white Republicanism is explored in various works; see Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race, 161–64; Frymer, Uneasy Alliances; Jenkins and Peck, Congress and the First Civil Rights Era, 1861-1918.

39 Day, “Herbert Hoover and Racial Politics,” 7–9.

40 Day, 6, 9–10; Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 172–74; Boston Transcript, June 18, 1929, 28.

41 Quoted in Day, “Herbert Hoover and Racial Politics,” 14.

42 Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 178–79.

43 Chicago World, June 29, 1929, 1, 9; H.R. 12316, 71st Congress (1929). All such pieces of legislation were accessed through ProQuest. To save space, I am omitting hyperlinks, but one can simply search for these pieces of legislation by using the above information. The Pittsburg Courier, May 25, 1930, 5; Carol M. Swain, Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress, enlarged edition (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006), 29.

44 “DePriest, Oscar Stanton,” in History, Art, and Archives of the House of Representatives, U.S. Congress, https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/12155#assignments. For one example of how the desire to obtain seniority affected a Congressional career, see Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate (New York: Random House, 2002).

45 Patel, Kiran Klaus, The New Deal: A Global History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 2434 Google Scholar. The quote is from Kennedy, David, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 39 Google Scholar.

46 Cohen, Making a New Deal, 242.

47 Quoted in Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, 55.

48 Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 49–50.

49 Ngai, Mae M., Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 5071 Google Scholar; Ortiz, Paul, An African American and Latinx History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), 118–27Google Scholar, 131–34.

50 Plaindealer, February 14, 1930, 2.

51 Quoted in Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 188.

52 Cohen, Making a New Deal, 162–67.

53 DePriest to Walter White, June 11, 1930, NAACP Papers: Board of Directors, Annual Conferences, Major Speeches, and National Staff Files, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001412-016-0147&accountid=9783.

54 Chicago World, November 2, 1929, 1; Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 196–98; Manning, William L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership, 65.

55 Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 204–5; Plaindealer, February 28, 1930, 1.

56 DePriest to White, Septemtber 30, 1930, NAACP Papers: Board of Directors, Annual Conferences, Major Speeches, and National Staff Files, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001412-016-0147&accountid=9783.

57 Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 64.

58 Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 211–13, 208–9; Wyandotte Echo (Kansas City, Kansas), June 20, 1930, 1.

59 Katznelson, Fear Itself, 328–29.

60 The Afro American (Baltimore, Maryland), November 1, 1930, 6; Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race, 221–27.

61 The Pittsburgh Courier, November 8, 1930, 2; Chicago Defender, November 8, 1930, 1; Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 213–14.

62 Initially, the two major parties were tied in the House with a Farmer-Labor representative holding the balance of power, but by the time the House was sworn in there had been numerous special elections due to the deaths of incoming members. Democrats won enough of those elections that they were the House majority in December of 1930 when the new Congress was sworn in.

63 H.R. 10098; H.R. 10034; H.R. 3898, 72nd Congress (1931).

64 Robert Bagnall to J. L. LaFlore, July 15, 1931, Papers of the NAACP, Part 12: Selected Branch Files, 1913-1939, Series A: The South, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001423-003-0345&accountid=9783.

65 Press Release, Mobile, AL NAACP, August 14, 1931, Papers of the NAACP, Part 12: Selected Branch Files, 1913-1939, Series A: The South, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001423-003-0345&accountid=9783.

66 J. L. LaFlore to Robert Bagnall, September 14, 1931, Papers of the NAACP, Part 12: Selected Branch Files, 1913-1939, Series A: The South, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001423-003-0345&accountid=9783.

67 Wyandotte Echo (Kansas City, Kansas), May 29, 1931, 1.

68 Quoted in Brandon, Black Chicago’s New Deal Congressmen, 227.

69 Brandon, 222.

70 Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race, 232.

71 For a contemporary example of this, see Voss, Stephen, “The First 100 Days,” Politico, n.d., https://www.politico.com/interactives/2021/washington-dc-during-joe-bidens-first-100-days-as-president-photos/.

72 William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 50.

73 Rep. Oscar DePriest speaking on S. 598, 73rd Congress, 1st Sess., 77 Cong. Rec. 983 (1933).

74 Bateman, Katznelson, and Lapinski, Southern Nation, 130–31; John Hope Franklin, “The Enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1875,” Prologue Magazine, no. 6 (Winter 1974), 225-235; Greyson Teague, “Ticket to Ride: Arthur Mitchell and the Fight to Dismantle Jim Crow in Transportation,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume 80, No. 3 (Autumn 2021), 295.

75 Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 53–55; Schickler, Racial Realignment, 142.

76 Katznelson, Fear Itself, 176; Schickler, Racial Realignment, 133; Bunche and Grantham, Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR, 615.

77 Elliot Rudwick, “Oscar DePriest and the Jim Crow Resturant in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Journal of Negro Education 35, no. 1 (Winter 1966): 77–78; Wyandotte Echo, February 2, 1934, 3; [Name Blank] to Morris Lewis, January 24, 1934, Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001421-027-0197&accountid=9783.

78 Quote from State (Columbia, South Carolina) quoted in Plaindealer, February 9, 1934, 1; H.Res. 236, Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus,. https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001421-027-0197&accountid=9783.

79 Dora Ogan to Robert Bacon, January 25, 1934; “NAACP Joins Restaurant Fight”; Edward Moran, Jr. to Roy Wilkins, January 30, 1934; Sterling Strong to Roy Wilkins, January 29, 1934, Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001421-027-0197&accountid=9783.

80 This is most associated with the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The most comprehensive account of the organization is still Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).

81 Russell to White, March 15, 1934; “House Café Refuses to Serve Colored University Professor”; NAACP Press Release, “NAACP to Take Capitol Café Jim Crow Fight to Courts,” Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001421-027-0255&accountid=9783.

82 Rudwick, “Oscar DePriest and the Jim Crow Resturant in the U.S. House of Representatives,” 78–79.

83 Quoted from Rudwick, 79.

84 Congressional Record, quoted in Rudwick, 79.

85 Houston to White, March 23, 1934; Williams to White, March 26, 1934, Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001421-027-0255&accountid=9783.

86 Rudwick, “Oscar DePriest and the Jim Crow Resturant in the U.S. House of Representatives,” 79–81; U.S., Congress, Senate, Alleged Communistic Activities at Howard University, Washington, D.C., 74th Congress, 2d Sess. (1936).

87 [Name Blank] to Baldwin, March 26, 1934; [Name Blank] to Russell, March 16, 1934; Williams to Houston, March 26, 1934, Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus, https://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001421-027-0255&accountid=9783.

88 Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940, 185–86; Duis, “Arthur W. Mitchell, New Deal Negro in Congress,” 30, 33, 40 (33 is a campaign flyer), MP, Campaign Speech 10/34, box 2, folder 5; Undated Newspaper Article about DePriest’s Attacks on the New Deal, box 2, folder 2, Chicago History Museum.

89 Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 168–79; Cohen, Making a New Deal, 256–61.

90 Chicago Defender, November 17, 1934; Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal, 260; Duis, “Arthur W. Mitchell, New Deal Negro in Congress,” 42; Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 234; United States House of Representatives, Election Statistics, 1920 to Present; Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race, 232–33.