A child of the early post-reconstruction south, Oscar DePriest was born in Florence, Alabama on March 9, 1871. In 1878 his family moved to Salina, Kansas. Sometime in the late 1880s DePriest moved to Chicago, Illinois where he found work as a house painter and decorator. DePriest created his own contracting business and became active in local civic affairs. DePriest’s organizational skills and his affable and engaging personality caught the eye of Republican Party leaders who eventually nominated him for Cook County commissioner in 1904. He won the election and served two terms in this position.
While in office DePriest worked as a real estate broker and amassed considerable wealth by moving black families into previously all-white neighborhoods, a practice later know as blockbusting. He also continued to rise in Republican Party politics and in 1915 he became Chicago’s first black alderman.
DePriest soon became known as an avid defender of black civil rights and a progressive on labor issues. He also developed a reputation as a corrupt politician. In 1917 he was indicted for bribery and accused of protecting South Side gamblers. DePriest, however, was acquitted at his trial. For the next decade, he would continue to run for public office with varying degrees of success. Finally, in 1928 DePriest was elected to represent the First Congressional District of Illinois. He became the first African American Congressman since North Carolina’s George H. White left Washington, D.C. in 1901 and the first black congressman ever elected outside the South. As the sole early 20th Century black Congressman, DePriest soon became a political symbol for much of African America.
While in Congress DePriest vigorously fought against racial discrimination in both government and military employment. He introduced several measures that would have outlawed discrimination including, most notably, an anti-lynching bill. Most of his measures failed but his 1933 amendment barring racial discrimination in the Civilian