After the end of Reconstruction, there wasn’t another Black elected to Congress until the Southside Chicago political machine elected Oscar DePriest to Congress in 1929. That seat has been held by an African American ever since and until 1943, when New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell was elected, the Congressmen representing the district were the sole African Americans in Congress.
DePriest held the seat from 1929-1935. He was followed by Arthur Wergs Mitchell, was the first Black Democrat elected to Congress. He was followed by William Levi Dawson, also a Democrat, who served in the seat from 1943 to 1971.
Oscar Stanton De Priest (1871 – 1951) was not only the first African American to be elected to Congress in the 20th century, he was also the first African American to be elected outside the southern states. Born in Alabama to freedmen parents, De Priest was a business man who made a fortune in Chicago as a contractor, and in the real estate and the stock market before the crash.
In Congress in the early 1930s, he spoke out against racial discrimination, gained passage of an amendment to desegregate the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the work programs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal; and introduced anti-lynching legislation to the House, although it was not passed.
Arthur Wergs Mitchell (1883 –1968) was the first African-American Democrat elected to Congress, and like DePriest, he was the sole African-American in Congress throughout his career. In Congress, Mitchell introduced bills banning lynching and against discrimination. He filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Central and Rock Island Railroads after he was forced into a segregated train car just before it passed into Arkansas. Mitchell’s suit was advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court as case Mitchell v. United States, which ruled that the railroad violated the Interstate Commerce Act.
William Levi Dawson (1886-1970) was an attorney and a leading Black figure in the Chicago Democratic machine. Dawson, who served 28 years in Congress, described himself as a “congressman first and a Negro second,” avoided highlighting his race, and drew considerable criticism from organizations like the NAACP that condemned his “silence, compromise and meaningless moderation” on issues concerning African Americans, including his refusal to back the amendment by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, aimed initially at prohibiting federal funding for segregated schools.
During his first term in the House, Dawson was the only African American serving in Congress. Two years later, a second black Representative, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York, joined Dawson. Dawson and Powell drew intense media attention and scrutiny because of their race and their strikingly different legislative styles. Powell, who epitomized the more militant wing of the civil rights movement, publicized racial inequality, including segregation in certain areas of the Capitol, at every conceivable opportunity. Dawson, on the other hand, eschewed issues that focused exclusively on race. Unlike Powell, he rarely challenged racial discrimination publicly, choosing instead to work behind the scenes to pass legislation to assist his district and the Democratic Party.
Dawson defended his approach to politics while maligning some of his outspoken black colleagues, noting, “I use speeches only as the artisan does his stone, to build something. I don’t talk just to show off.”