Housing | Politics

Restoring a Political Leader’s Home

Preservation project announced for former home of South Side congressman and alderman Oscar De Priest

Courtesy of Landmarks Illinois

On January 12, the National Park Service (NPS) granted funding for preservation projects on thirty-nine African American and Civil Rights landmarks across the United States. The African American Civil Rights Grant Program was approved by Congress in 2016 through the Historic Preservation fund, which uses “revenue from federal oil leases on the Outer Continental Shelf to provided assistance for a broad range of preservation projects without expanding tax dollars,” according to the NPS. Spread over twenty states, the grants cover the restoration, preservation, and education costs of landmarks such as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama, which was bombed by white supremacists during the Civil Rights Movement, and Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, one of the first schools to undergo forced desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education.

One of these new new preservation projects is close to home, on 45th and King Drive in Bronzeville—the Oscar Stanton De Priest House, which was originally designated a National Historical Landmark in 1975 by the Secretary of the Interior for its “exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.” An eight-flat brick building with windows dressed in green, the De Priest House is one of eighty-six National Historical Landmarks in the state of Illinois, forty-five of which are in Chicago and nineteen of which are in the South Side.

Oscar Stanton De Priest, who bought the building in 1929 and lived on its second floor starting in 1921, was the first African-American person elected to Congress in the twentieth century, and served three terms from 1929 to 1935. Born in 1871 to two former slaves in Alabama, he moved to Chicago in 1889 and worked various jobs before starting his own real estate management firm. At the time, Chicago was heavily divided into wards and precincts, each controlled by a precarious balance of “political appointments, patronage positions, and favors.” As the black population of Chicago dramatically increased during the Great Migration of the early 1900s, De Priest became increasingly active in the Republican party. He was so effective at mobilizing black voters in the Second and Third Wards that he was eventually elected to a seat on Chicago’s Cook County board of commissioners from 1904 to 1908. He then became Chicago’s first black alderman and sat on the city council from 1915 to 1917.

However, De Priest was forced to resign from his seat when he was accused of accepting money from a gambling establishment. Though he was later acquitted, his political reputation was damaged, and he was unsuccessful in gaining a third nomination for a seat on city council. He spent some time out of politics running his very successful real estate business. At the time, De Priest also owned a home at 38th Street and Vernon Avenue, which lay between two segregated neighborhoods. That home was firebombed after he chose to rent out the residence to a black family instead of a white one.

Eventually, De Priest’s reputation recovered enough to be named Third Ward committeeman in 1924. But when Martin Madden, who was the Representative for a Chicago district that included the Loop and Bronzeville, suddenly died after winning a thirteenth term in Congress, Chicago’s Republican machine chose De Priest to replace him. De Priest narrowly won the candidacy in 1929 and was then sworn in to the 71st United States Congress. Soon after his election, he allegedly sent to his constituents 10,000 copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

De Priest’s win challenged the segregation laws that were still in effect even in the Capitol. When First Lady Lou Hoover invited De Priest’s wife, Jessie De Priest, to the White House for tea, Southern legislators vehemently opposed the gesture and called for “the necessity of the preservation of the racial integrity of the white race.”

“I’m going to have the rights of every other Congressman – no more and no less,” De Priest said, “if it’s in the congressional barber shop or at a White House tea.”

De Priest remained the only African American person in Congress during all three of his terms. He proposed bills that would have punished the disenfranchisement of black voters and give pensions to former slaves older than seventy-five, and successfully passed antidiscrimination measures for unemployment relief programs and reforestation committees like the Civilian Conservation Corps.

After failing to regain his congressional seat in 1934, De Priest returned to Chicago, to the City Council, and to his home on 45th and King. After losing his seat on the City Council in 1947, De Priest once again became active in his real estate business until he died in 1951.

Now, De Priest’s great-grandson has taken it upon himself to keep De Priest’s legacy alive. He became the administrator of the De Priest estate in 1992 and, upon his visit to the house on 45th and King Drive, realized that De Priest’s political office had been locked since his death. De Priest’s desk, documents, and safe inside that room had remained untouched for over forty years. Although De Priest’s great-grandson noted at the time that the building had suffered some water damage and part of the ceiling had collapsed, he was still able to enter his great-grandfather’s political office. He opened the desk with a crowbar, and found “a veritable time capsule.” He also hired a safecracker to open the safe, and the safe inside of the first safe, and found “a treasure trove of information…and $64 in cash.”

Landmarks Illinois, a non-profit organization that works to preserve historic buildings and spaces across the state, was awarded $250,000 through this federal grant program to complete essential roof and masonry repairs to the De Priest House. According to Kaitlyn McAvoy, the communications manager for Landmark Illinois, the non-profit is “currently in the process of finalizing the grant agreement with NPS and creating a more specific project scope and timeline. We hope to get started as soon as possible on the repair work to the building, ideally beginning by summer of 2017.”

For now, Landmarks Illinois intends to focus on physical restorations of the home, primarily reparations on the house’s roof. Although they are planning to share the details of the restoration plans as soon as they become available, there has been no announcement regarding the future of the documents and artifacts that lie inside of the De Priest House. For now, the house remains closed to the public, but its historical significance, and the extensive archive surrounding Oscar Stanton De Priest’s career all serve as a testament to the political and cultural influence of black leaders from the South Side.

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