From 1929 through 1935, Representative Oscar De Priest (R-IL) was the only African American Member of the U.S. Congress. Not surprisingly, his career in Congress was marked by a number of incidents of racial discrimination. At The Sausage Factory blog, we like to explain procedural issues and De Priest’s work to end racial discrimination in the Capitol itself furnishes an appropriate example.
The son of freed slaves, De Priest was born on March 9, 1871, in Florence, Alabama. Seven years later, his family moved to Salina, Kansas, where he eventually studied bookkeeping at the Salina Normal School. In 1889, the moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he built a successful real estate management firm.
In Chicago, De Priest joined the political scene and became well-connected to the Republican Party. This led to his election to the Cook County board of commissioners, which he served on from 1904 to 1908. He was defeated for reelection but was later elected to serve as the first black alderman on the Chicago City Council from 1915 to 1917. This term also ended unfortunately, as he was indicted for bribery and he resigned his seat to defend himself from the charges. The jury acquitted him. However, it wouldn’t be until 1924 when he again held elective office, this time as a committee member for Chicago’s Third Ward.
De Priest’s effective networking among Chicago Republicans paid off in 1928. In April, Representative Martin B. Madden, the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, died suddenly at the Capitol. Since Madden had already been nominated to run in the upcoming election, it fell to the party to designate an alternative. The powerful Chicago Mayor William Thompson was the local Republican leader and a friend of De Priest’s. De Priest was named to take Madden’s place on the ballot and was elected to represent Illinois’s First District with a plurality of the vote. This made him the first black person elected to Congress in the 20th century and the first black Member elected outside the Reconstruction South. He was sworn in to the 71st Congress on April 15, 1929.
As a Member of Congress, De Priest worked to advance civil rights throughout the country. For instance, one of his legislative successes was securing the adoption of an amendment prohibiting discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program to employ young men who were jobless during the Depression.
In 1934, De Priest’s efforts to combat discrimination turned towards the House itself. On January 23, his aide Morris Lewis and Lewis’ son went to eat at the section of the House’s restaurant which was open to the public. However, the restaurant’s manager refused to serve them on account of their skin color. When they asked him who made that policy, the manager informed them that it had come from the House Committee on Accounts, which oversaw the restaurant. When the matter became public, the Committee’s Chairman, Representative Lindsay Warren (D-NC) said that the manager “was acting upon my orders and instructions.”
Warren was adamant that the restaurant would not be integrated. “It has never served Negro employes [sic] or visitors, nor will it so long as I have anything to do with it,” he said.
De Priest was apoplectic. He intended to make a withering speech against Warren on the Floor of the House on January 24. He did not, and his decision not to illustrates how contentious the issue could become for the parties. Before the start of the legislative day for January 24, Speaker Henry Rainey, a Democrat and fellow Illinoisan, requested the De Priest see him. The New York Times reported that the two did not provide details from their discussion, but “Speaker Rainey admitted that the situation might develop into a national argument if it was not curbed.” De Priest also seemed willing to work with the congressional leaders in seeing the matter through. The Republican Minority Leader Bertrand Snell of New York was out of town when the incident happened. “It is going to be a party fight and I think I owe Mr. Snell, the leader, the courtesy of awaiting his return before starting the row on the floor,” The Times reported De Priest as saying. He also said he had “nothing against Mr. Rainey or any other leaders, but this fellow Warren.” It was apparent that the issue had the potential to aggravate the parties.
Instead of making his speech on January 24, he merely had his remarks printed in the Congressional Record, and he also introduced H.Res. 236. The resolution contained a lengthy preamble which laid out the facts of the case and recalled the history of black patriotism despite long oppression. It concluded by providing for the creation of a committee to investigate the incident and issue recommendations to the House. H.Res. 236 was referred to the Rules Committee, then controlled by the Democrats, many of whom, including Chairman William Bankhead, came from the South. On January 28, The New York Times reported that Speaker Rainey and Minority Leader Snell agreed to “quiet things” by letting the resolution languish in the Rules Committee. Furthermore, The Times noted that they agreed “to evade any determined minority move to force open debate.” (The Times did not specify whether this information came from the party leaders themselves or another source.)
De Priest, however, would not stand for his resolution to lie dormant in the Rules Committee and pledged to go forward with a discharge petition, an end run around the Committee. To get around a committee that will not report a piece of legislation, a Representative may initiate the lengthy process for a motion to discharge, also called a discharge petition. If a committee has not reported a piece of legislation within 30 legislative days, a Member may file a discharge petition with the Clerk. If enough Representatives sign the petition, a Member may make a motion to discharge the committee in question. Today, a majority of the whole House (218) must sign the petition, but in De Priest’s day, 145 signatures were required. If enough Members sign, the motion is referred to the Discharge Calendar. At least seven legislative days must pass before the motion is eligible to be called up from this Calendar. The motions may only be entertained on certain days of the month, so quite a bit of time can elapse before a Member has a chance to call up the motion. If the motion is called up and adopted, the House immediately proceeds to consider the legislation in question and continues to debate it until they are finished. (Volume VII, Chapter 115, of Cannon’s Precedents, Volume V, Chapter 18, of Deschler’s Precedents, and Chapter 19 of House Practice: A Guide to the Rules, Precedents and Procedures of the House detail the discharge petition.)
After a month of inactivity on the part of the Rules Committee, De Priest started the discharge petition process that would force the House as a whole to vote on his resolution even if the Committee would not report it. De Priest began the petition on March 5.
As De priest began his effort to round up signatures, members of the local black community protested segregation at the House restaurant as well. Professors and students of Howard University attempted to patronize the restaurant on a few different occasions. On one occasion in early March, a political science professor and Charles Edward Russell, one of the founders of the NAACP, went to the restaurant and were served. On another occasion another professor was denied service. In mid-March, 30 Howard students attempted to gain entry to the restaurant, and the police ushered them out of the building. One of the group was arrested for trying to attack Harry Parker, an elderly black employee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
On March 21, a few days after the students attempted to enter the restaurant, De Priest delivered a speech on the House Floor calling on his colleagues to sign the petition. Shortly before the speech, 93 Members had signed, about 64 percent of the number required. He called on “every justice-loving Member” to sign the petition since he said it appeared to be the only way to have the issue resolved on the Floor. “If we allow segregation and the denial of constitutional rights under the dome of the Capitol, where in God’s name will we get them?” he asked.
In addition to his appealing for signatures in his March 21 speech, De Priest defended himself against various allegations. For instance, he denied any association with the Howard students or foreknowledge of their plans. “I might say that personally I am very sorry that those boys came down here from that university the other day as they did. If they had consulted me I would have told them to stay away from here,” he said. He also noted that the young man who was arrested had not been from Howard at all. At the same time, he appeared to try to defend the University’s reputation, as he said the students were “just like the uncontrolled youth of any college or school. There are very few colleges which do not have some radicals in them.”
Additionally, he had been dogged by accusations that he was simply using the issue for a political benefit. He denied this roundly:
To my Democratic friends who said this was a political movement, or, as a Negro newspaper said, brought about to create an issue to get votes in Illinois; I will get them without any issue, if necessary. I could not have instigated this. The gentleman from North Carolina and myself never have even spoken to each other that I know of. I did not tell him to issue the order that the Negro could not be served. I do not need that kind of an issue. I would not go into a conspiracy to hurt the Negro race for 40 congressional seats.
De Priest’s own reputation was on the line in advancing this cause.
A mere two days after the speech, on March 23, De Priest had obtained the additional 52 signatures needed to bring the resolution to the Floor and the motion was added to the Calendar of Motions to Discharge Committees. A majority of the signatories were Republicans, though 48 Northern Democrats and 5 Farmer-Labor Members (who usually caucus with the Democrats) joined them.
Normally, if a petition gains enough signatures, the House debates the motion to discharge the committee. If the motion is agreed to, the House debates the piece of legislation listed in the petition. Often enough though, the mere threat of being discharged will force the committee in question to act. This happened in De Priest’s case. On March 27, the Rules Committee reported his resolution with an amendment that struck his preamble, leaving only the provisions calling for an ad hoc committee to investigate the matter. However, nearly a whole month passed before it got to the Floor. On April 25, the House voted 236-114 in favor of the resolution.
On May 2, the Members of the special committee were formally appointed. Representative John Miller of Arkansas was named the Chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate Management and Control of the House Restaurant. His fellow Democrats on the committee were Representatives Francis Walter of Pennsylvania and Compton White of Idaho. Representatives Louis McFadden of Pennsylvania and Patrick Moynihan of Chicago, Illinois, were the Republican Members.
The committee held hearings on May 24 and June 4, 1934. At the first hearing, Representative Warren testified that the restaurant had officially been for the use of Members and that congressional staff were served as “a permissive arrangement, under sufferance,” not as a matter of right. Additionally, he claimed that he had been enforcing rules that had been in place since 1921, the year in which Congress assumed responsibility for the restaurant, when Republicans controlled the House.
Later during the same hearing, Lewis testified about the incident. He testified that he had eaten regularly in the restaurant for 4 or 5 years, but on January 23, he attempted to patronize the facility, only to be told explicitly that only white people were permitted. He also noted that after the incident, the entrance to the restaurant featured a sign saying “For Members Only.” This he called “the grossest kind of subterfuge” since white private citizens were permitted entry. “As an American citizen entitled to the facilities that are afforded to a citizen of the United States of America, I have the right to go into any public facility that is provided by the Nation,” he said to the committee.
The Special Committee issued its report (H.Rept. 73-1920) on June 8, 1934, with its members divided along party lines. The Democratic majority wrote that the restaurant was not a public facility but was a private facility to serve the Members of Congress. Members of Congress and their guests were not discriminated against on account of race. They also found that the Committee on Accounts was given the authority to run the restaurant in 1921 and the Committee in turn entrusted its Chairman with the authority to regulate the restaurant. They further recommended that the Committee on Accounts retain the authority to operate the restaurant and that it remain a private establishment for the Members and their guests. The majority report, however, did not directly address the question of whether there was discrimination against Lewis or others who were not accompanied by a Member of Congress.
The two committee Republicans, by contrast, noted that the House restaurant had a section that was set aside for the general public and was designated as such at the time of the incident. “In issuing an order, rule, or regulation denying service in said public restaurant to any person on account of race or color, said chairman exceeded his authority, in violation of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution,” they determined. The rule should be “forthwith rescinded.” (A copy of the report can be found on page 12493 of the Congressional Record for June 18, 1934.)
The House took no further action on the report, and the Congress adjourned on June 18.
The results of the Special Committee was not De Priest’s only defeat in 1934. Like many other Republicans, his political fortunes dwindled during the Franklin Roosevelt years. He largely opposed FDR’s New Deal programs, favoring instead to fight the Depression through state and local initiatives. His opposition to the New Deal alienated many of his constituents. In 1934, Democrat Arthur Mitchell, who was also black, challenged De Priest and was elected with about 53 percent of the vote. De Priest was the last Republican to represent Illinois’ First Congressional District, though each Member since him has been black.
After his defeat, De Priest remained active in politics as a Republican. He was a delegate to the 1936 Republican National Convention, which nominated Alf Landon of Kansas to challenge President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That year he also unsuccessfully attempted to regain his old seat in Congress. From 1943-1947, he served as a member of the Chicago city council. In 1951, he was hit by a bus, and complications from this incident led to his death in Chicago at age 80.
De Priest’s successor, Representative Mitchell, disagreed with De Priest’s actions in the matter of the House restaurant. “When the smoke had cleared away, conditions were worse. Several colored persons lost their jobs as a result of the fight and the colored public is still barred,” he told one African-American newspaper.
Representative Lindsay Warren remained the Chairman of the Committee on Accounts through the 76th Congress (1939-1941). Aside from continuing the policy of segregation, his term as Chairman offers is marked by a tangential, yet ironic, post-script to the episode from 1934. On July 13, 1937, Warren offered a resolution to provide an annual pension to $1260 to Harry Parker, the black congressional employee who was involved in the scuffle with one of the protestors at the restaurant in 1934. “Harry needs a rest, and who is there would would keep him from it in the fullness of his years?” said Warren. The House applauded Parker and unanimously approved the resolution.
Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who served in the House from 1945 through 1971, continued to the fight to challenge discrimination within Congress. According to the office of the House of Representatives Historian, “Soon after his arrival in Washington, Powell challenged the informal regulations forbidding black Representatives from using Capitol facilities reserved for Members.” This included bringing black constituents to the House restaurant. Like De Priest he sought legislation to challenge the segregation on Capitol Hill: On March 12, 1947, Representative Adam Clayton Powell introduced H.Res. 143, which directed the House Committee on Education and Labor to study whether the black people were excluded from service at food establishments within Federal Government buildings within Washington, DC.
In the May 1934 issue of The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois noted, “The only power that could reverse the present policy of the Congressional restaurants is the power of public opinion, there is no public opinion in the United States which is prepared to act upon these barbarians.”
Du Bois’ statement raises the question: When exactly did segregation in the House restaurant end? According to the Washington Area Spark, in 1950, Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-California), a white Member, “persuaded the operator of the House public restaurant to desegregate” so her black assistant could eat there. Elliott Rudwick, a professor of African American history who examined De Priest’s efforts, was unable to identify when exactly desegregation ended for good at the restaurant. He noted that NAACP’s head lobbyist Clarence Mitchell said the House restaurant was intermittently segregated throughout the 1940s and recalled one occasion in 1950 when black people were denied service. Rudwick concludes that the discriminatory policy “ended sometime before” 1952 when the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co. that upheld laws prohibiting segregation in Washington.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch. Duncan Ripoll contributed to this research.