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Oscar DePriest

Oscar DePriest


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Oscar DePriest was born in Florence, Alabama, on 9th March, 1871. When he was seven years old his family moved to Salina, Kansas. After a limited education he did a variety of menial jobs. His fortunes improved when he moved to Chicago and he eventually became a successful estate agent.

A member of the Republican Party, DePriest served as Cook County commissioner (1904-1908) before becoming the first African American to be elected to Chicago's city council (1915-1917).

In 1928 DePriest became the first African American to be elected to the House of Representatives since George Henry White who had been defeated in 1900. Over the next few years DePriest advocated an end to racial discrimination in government and military employment and a federal anti-lynching bill. Oliver DePriest, who lost his seat in 1934, died in Chicago on 12th May, 1951.


Jessie De Priest

Jessie De Priest (September 3, 1870 – March 31, 1961) was a former music teacher married to Oscar Stanton De Priest, the first African American to be elected to the United States Congress in the 20th century. [1] Jessie De Priest was the first African American wife of a U.S. Congressman who served in the 1900s. [2] She is best known for her involvement in an incident known as the "Tea at the White House". First Lady Lou Henry Hoover invited De Priest to the traditional tea along with several other Congressmen's wives, resulting in racially-motivated backlash from media outlets and the public.


Oscar DePriest - History

Also just to add. Its amazing to me..the few comments Im seeing. for years my Grandfather Bishop John Earl Watley Sr. would be at his chruch at 3140 on Sunday and on the week days..evry so often I would help him restore this building I even lived in this building a short time..ad was married there twice. For a certain person making claim you`re related to him u had many years to make your journey to 3140 so Indiana. just as I have made contact with many of his famliy in Texas in the past..Im curious as to why now make claim. This Building is also where my father John E. Watley Jr. had service`s sometimes and also where his funeral was held back in 1981 where my Grandfather and I attended. I also want to add..there is no Grave site for Bishop or my Father. So I am pleased that my Grandfather had the intelligence to buy this building ..Im sure he knew the history of it when he bought it. And now by the Blessing of God..the building is deemed a National Treasure..and for those that remember Bishop Watley and Rev. Watley. this Building stands with part of their legacy. RIP. to 2 blessed men. Bishop John Earl Watley Sr. and to his Son. Rev. John E. Watley Jr. with much Respect and love from John Earl Watley III.

Wow. This is amazing! It's 12:41am. I'm searching for what info the Internet has on my father. hoping he isn't written out of history due to the fact that he has contributed so much Yup.. J.E. Watley Jr. And I find out that I'm not the only one needing closure.

There's another website with a few pics of great history :-)

This is Michele Watley and I was the 1st person to comment, I did find out that after my Granfather died the building went to COGIC inc. I also found another historical fact regarding my father Rev. John Watley he was the first black man towin a golf tourament in 1950 at the age of 18,he was photographed holding the trophy.


Oscar DePriest made history 100 years ago in Chicago

Few today remember him – about the only lasting nod to his legacy is an elementary school bearing his name in East Garfield Park – but a hundred years ago today Oscar DePriest made history, becoming the first African-American elected alderman in Chicago.

DePriest holds several other firsts. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from the North, in 1928 — and the first elected in the 20th century.

He also, ignominiously, was the first African-American alderman to resign from the City Council under cloud of indictment, just two years after his 1915 election. He stood accused of protecting policy kingpins who ran a numbers racket that flourished in many of Chicago’s mostly poor and mostly black neighborhoods, but was later acquitted.

His attorney in the case was Clarence Darrow.

In many ways, he represents the early part of the story of the African-American experience in Chicago, arriving with little or nothing, parlaying luck, intelligence, savvy and hard work into establishing financial success, becoming a part of a thriving middle class and an emerging upper class and then using that success to take the last step to equal footing, attaining and wielding political power.

He represented the Second Ward, which included Bronzeville, and had been active in politics – in the city’s then-thriving Republican Party – reliably turning out votes for the Republican machine.

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, DePriest spent his time on the council advocating for increased rights for African-Americans and also pursuing patronage jobs for residents of his ward.

Once off the council, he didn’t let the corruption charges sideline him and became integral in the growing effort among African-Americans for political power, forming the Peoples’ Movement, which scholar Charles R. Branham described as the only significant militant black political organization in Chicago before Operation PUSH.

Branham writes that DePriest used it as his personal political party, aligning with politicians who would grant concessions to African-American political power.

One such pol was William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, who was elected to his first term as mayor at the same time DePriest won his city council seat. Another was U.S. Rep. Martin Madden, a millionaire quarryman and powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Madden represented the First District for decades.

When Madden died unexpectedly in his office just off the House floor in the Capitol mere weeks after winning the 1928 primary, Thompson backed DePriest to succeed him.

DePriest was poised for the opportunity, having reportedly encouraged one of his young lieutenants, William L. Dawson, to oppose Madden in the primary as a stalking horse to soften Madden’s hold on the district, which was becoming increasingly African-American with the influx of residents arriving in the city through the Great Migration.

Dawson, who lost a leg to a train on a trip to Detroit to speak on behalf of DePriest, later ruled the South Side as alderman and congressman – as a Democrat. He served in Washington from 1943 until his death in 1970.

DePriest served three terms in Congress.

But first, a bit about his background. He was born to former slaves in Florence, Alabama, in 1871. Florence was the birthplace, earlier, of fugitive slave Dred Scott and, two years after DePriest’s birth, bluesman W.C. Handy.

DePriest’s family fled Alabama when he was young as a part of the Exodus Movement, a precursor to the Great Migration. Many African-Americans realized the heightened danger and animosity toward them as white Democrats re-took control of political machinery as the Reconstruction period ended and Confederate states again became self-governing, without federal oversight.

Most, like the DePriests, moved to Kansas, where they hoped they could live without the threats to their freedoms as citizens.

After school, where he studied bookkeeping, DePriest ended up in Chicago at 18 and worked as a house painter and plasterer before becoming active in politics.

He also later became wealthy as a real estate broker, taking advantage of white flight from areas as the city burgeoned, selling to the new African-American arrivals from a new, more widespread migration from the south from the 1920s onward.

While in Congress, DePriest not only represented the First District of Illinois – which has had an unbroken line of African-American representatives from DePriest to Bobby Rush – but he symbolically represented African-Americans nationwide: people named their children after him, he spoke for people of color and represented their interests and defended their rights.

His three terms saw him fighting bigotry in Congress, in Washington and in the nation.

Although the lone African-American in Congress, he wasn’t without friends in the capital. Many looked to make his tenure hospitable, realizing the historic nature of the moment. House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, at the urging of another Chicago Republican representative, Ruth Hanna McCormick, changed the way new representatives were sworn in.

Until that time, members were sworn in state by state. People feared that any of several hostile southerners in states sworn in before Illinois’ delegation might try to block DePriest from being seated. Longworth swore them in all at once, mooting any such attempt.

DePriest fought to integrate the Capitol dining facilities, demanding an investigation after an aide and the aide’s son were thrown out of the House dining room.

“If we allow segregation and the denial of constitutional rights under the dome of the Capitol,” he thundered on the House floor, “where in God’s name will we get them?”

This, remember, was at a time that the law of the land was the uneasy “separate but equal” doctrine that came from the Supreme Court’s Plessy decision. The House dining room space for blacks was in the basement, next to the kitchen. Unequal.

He defended the call for the investigation, which he got, by saying, “If we allow this challenge [to the right of African-Americans to eat among white patrons] to go without correcting it, it will set an example where people will say Congress itself approves of segregation.”

But he had to pull every parliamentary trick to get a hostile House to look into the matter. A history of his time in Congress, published on a House of Representatives website, notes that he gathered the names of 145 representatives to bypass the Rules Committee, where his request for the investigation was sent to be buried.

Although he won and the investigation was launched, a party-line vote of three Democrats to two Republicans left the segregation policy in place by not making any recommendations for change.

He sponsored anti-lynching legislation and, as a response to the mishandling of the Scottsboro case in 1931, sought to allow trials to be moved if defendants were unlikely to get a fair hearing from a local jury. One success was his effort to bar race as a factor in hiring practices in the New Deal jobs program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Shortly after arriving in town, DePriest found himself at the center of controversy as the ugliness of racism was laid bare.

Jessie DePriest-Scurlock

Congressional wives are traditionally invited to a tea at the White House, hosted by the first lady.

Lou Hoover, like Speaker Longworth, wanted to protect Jessie DePriest from probable boorish behavior from some of the other wives, but her solution was the opposite of Longworth’s: Instead of having one tea, Hoover split them into five separate events.

After news of the tea was reported, criticism mounted both in the media and in letters to the White House. Most were from outraged bigots, but some were from people outraged by the outrage.

The objection was social mixing.

DePriest was quoted in an Associated Press story in 1929 as saying: “I want to thank the Democrats of the South for one thing. They were so barbaric they drove my parents to the North. If it had not been for that I wouldn’t be in Congress today. I’ve been Jim Crowed, segregated, persecuted, and I think I know how best the Negro can put a stop to being imposed upon. It is through the ballot, through organization, through eternally fighting for his rights.”

Despite the trail he blazed, he was also a victim of a generational change: He and his parents were Republicans because of Lincoln, and he hewed to social policies of the Republican Party that worked for a man in his 60s who had attained wealth and a successful career. But the Depression, which hit the nation hard and its black citizens harder, caused those younger to switch allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democrats and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

His re-election bid in 1934 attracted national attention because it was the first race that featured an African-American challenging an African-American. DePriest lost to Arthur Mitchell.

DePriest eventually returned to Chicago and won a term on the City Council from the Third Ward. He died on May 19, 1951, at the age of 80 from complications that arose after he was hit by a bus.

His home was in an eight flat building he owned at 4536-38 S. King Drive South Parkway in DePriest’s day. It is registered as a National Historic Landmark.

The Oscar DePriest house on the South Side.

Marcel Pacatte is the former director of the Medill News Service at Northwestern University, where he taught reporting, writing and editing. He now teaches at Boise State University.


Oscar DePriest poses in front of a plane located on an airfield in Los Angeles, 1929.

Oscar DePriest poses in front of a plane located on an airfield in Los Angeles, 1929. Oscar DePriest was part of the Bessie Coleman’s Aero Clubs, established to honor the memory of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn an international pilot’s license. The image is inscribed, “Compliments of your friends of Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs 1423 St. Jefferson Blvd., Los Angles Calif, 9-30-1929.”


From Chicago’s Grand Boulevard to Washington, D.C.’s LeDroit Park

At the time of DePriest’s election to Congress, he lived with his wife in an all-black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago at 4536-4538 South Parkway (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive).

The second floor of the 1920 eight-flat apartment in the Grand Boulevard community became their residence in 1921, but the DePriests owned the entire complex. The property remains a part of the DePriest family trust and was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

When the DePriests moved to Washington, D.C., in 1929, they moved to LeDroit Park at 419 U Street, Northwest. The DePriest House was one of forty-one substantial Italianate, Gothic, and Second Empire style detached and semi-detached villas in an exclusive community designed and built by Washington architect James H. McGill between 1873 and 1877. Convenient to Howard University and the Howard Theater, the community’s expansion in the late nineteenth century spurred a population change. About 1901 the neighborhood began to evolve into the pleasant upper-middle class haven for the city’s black social, educational, and cultural leaders that the DePriests would have known.

DePriest’s immediate neighbors included Dr. Garnet C. Wilkinson (406 U Street), Assistant Superintendent of Colored Schools in the District until 1954 Clara Taliaferro (414 U Street), a pharmacist and daughter of lawyer and educator John H. Smyth, a former ambassador to Liberia in 1890 Percy A. Roy (417 U Street) a craftsman, artisan, and manual arts teacher at Armstrong High School famous for his exquisite flower gardens James M. Carter (402 U Street), an English professor at Howard University and famous black photographer Addison Scurlock had a studio (900 U Street) nearby. 6

The DePriests left 419 U Street toward the end of his last term and moved to 1923 15th Street, Northwest, where they lived until they returned to Chicago in 1934. When they left the residence on 15th Street, family lore recorded that the new owners found hundreds of copies of the Declaration of Independence. Shortly after being sworn into Congress, Congressman DePriest sent out to constituents 10,000 copies to constituents of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Mr. DePriest argued that rather than social equality, he sought to achieve "equal justice under the law." For the rest of his life, whenever the opportunity presented itself, he would hand out a copy of these two precious American documents. 7


A Century of Progress

Ever hear of Oscar DePriest? He made history a hundred years ago Monday.

Few today remember him -- about the only lasting nod to his legacy is an elementary school bearing his name in East Garfield Park -- but a hundred years ago, on April 6, 1915, Oscar DePriest made history, becoming the first African-American elected alderman in Chicago.

DePriest holds several other firsts. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from the North, in 1928.

He also, ignominiously, was the first African-American alderman to resign from the City Council under cloud of indictment, just two years after his 1915 election. He stood accused of protecting policy kingpins who ran a numbers racket that flourished in many of Chicago's mostly poor and mostly black neighborhoods, but was later acquitted. His attorney in the case was Clarence Darrow.

In many ways, he represents the early part of the story of the African-American experience in Chicago, arriving with little or nothing, parlaying luck, intelligence, savvy and hard work into establishing financial success, becoming a part of a thriving middle class and an emerging upper class and then using that success to take the last steps to equal footing, attaining and wielding political power.

He represented the Second Ward, which included Bronzeville, and had been active in politics - in the city's then-thriving Republican Party -- reliably turning out votes for the Republican machine.

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, DePriest spent his time on the council advocating for increased rights for African-Americans and also pursuing patronage jobs for residents of his ward.

Once off the council, he didn't let the corruption charges sideline him and became integral in the growing effort among African-Americans for political power, forming the Peoples' Movement, which scholar Charles R. Branham described as the only significant militant black political organization in Chicago before Operation PUSH.

Branham writes that DePriest used it as his personal political party, aligning with politicians who would grant concessions to African-American political power.

One such pol was William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson, who was elected to his first term as mayor at the same time DePriest won his city council seat. Another was U.S. Rep. Martin Madden, a millionaire quarryman and powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Madden represented the First District for decades.

When Madden died unexpectedly in his office just off the House floor in the Capitol mere weeks after winning the 1928 primary, Thompson backed DePriest to succeed him.

DePriest was poised for the opportunity, having reportedly encouraged one of his young lieutenants, William L. Dawson, to oppose Madden in the primary as a stalking horse to soften Madden's hold on the district, which was becoming increasingly African-American with the influx of residents arriving in the city through the Great Migration.

Dawson, who lost a leg to a train on a trip to Detroit to speak on behalf of DePriest, later ruled the South Side as alderman and congressman - as a Democrat. He served in Washington from 1943 until his death in 1970.

DePriest served three terms in Congress.

But first, a bit about his background. He was born to former slaves in Florence, Alabama, in 1871. Florence was the birthplace, earlier, of fugitive slave Dred Scott and, two years after DePriest's birth, bluesman W.C. Handy.

DePriest's family fled Alabama when he was young as a part of the Exodus Movement, a precursor to the Great Migration. Many African-Americans realized the heightened danger and animosity toward them as white Democrats re-took control of political machinery as the Reconstruction period ended and Confederate states again became self-governing, without federal oversight.

Most, like the DePriests, moved to Kansas, where they hoped they could live without the threats to their freedoms as citizens.

After school, where he studied bookkeeping, DePriest ended up in Chicago at 18 and worked as a house painter and plasterer before becoming active in politics.

He also later became wealthy as a real estate broker, taking advantage of white flight from areas as the city burgeoned, selling to the new African-American arrivals from a new, more widespread migration from the south from the 1920s onward.

While in Congress, DePriest not only represented the First District of Illinois -- which has had an unbroken line of African-American representatives from DePriest to Bobby Rush -- but he symbolically represented African-Americans nationwide: people named their children after him, he spoke for people of color and represented their interests and defended their rights.

His three terms saw him fighting bigotry in Congress, in Washington and in the nation.

Although the lone African-American in Congress, he wasn't without friend in the capital. Many looked to make his tenure hospitable, realizing the historic nature of the moment. House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, at the urging of another Chicago Republican representative, Ruth Hanna McCormick, changed the way new representatives were sworn in.

Until that time, members were sworn in state by state. People feared that any of several hostile southerners in states sworn in before Illinois' delegation might try to block DePriest from being seated. Longworth swore them in all at once, mooting any such attempt.

DePriest fought to integrate the Capitol dining facilities, demanding an investigation after an aide and the aide's son were thrown out of the House dining room.

"If we allow segregation and the denial of constitutional rights under the dome of the Capitol," he thundered on the House floor, "where in God's name will we get them?"

This, remember, was at a time that the law of the land was the uneasy "separate but equal" doctrine that came from the Supreme Court's Plessy decision. The House dining room space for blacks was in the basement, next to the kitchen. Unequal.

He defended the call for the investigation, which he got, by saying, "If we allow this challenge [to the right of African-Americans to eat among white patrons] to go without correcting it, it will set an example where people will say Congress itself approves of segregation."

But he had to pull every parliamentary trick to get a hostile House to look into the matter. A history of his time in Congress, published on a House of Representatives website, notes that he gathered the names of 145 representatives to bypass the Rules Committee, where his request for the investigation was sent to be buried.

Although he won and the investigation was launched, a party-line vote of three Democrats to two Republicans left the segregation policy in place by not making any recommendations for change.

He sponsored anti-lynching legislation and, as a response to the mishandling of the Scottsboro case in 1931, sought to allow trials to be moved if defendants were unlikely to get a fair hearing from a local jury. One success was his effort to bar race as a factor in hiring practices in the New Deal jobs program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Shortly after arriving in town, DePriest found himself at the center of controversy as the ugliness of racism was laid bare.

Congressional wives are traditionally invited to a tea at the White House, hosted by the first lady.

Lou Hoover, like Speaker Longworth, wanted to protect Jessie DePriest from probable boorish behavior from some of the other wives, but her solution was the opposite of Longworth's: Instead of having one tea, Hoover split them into five separate events.

After news of the tea was reported, criticism mounted both in the media and in letters to the White House. Most were from outraged bigots, but some were from people outraged by the outrage.

The objection was social mixing.

DePriest was quoted in an Associated Press story in 1929 as saying: "I want to thank the Democrats of the South for one thing. They were so barbaric they drove my parents to the North. If it had not been for that I wouldn't be in Congress today. I've been Jim Crowed, segregated, persecuted, and I think I know how best the Negro can put a stop to being imposed upon. It is through the ballot, through organization, through eternally fighting for his rights."

Despite the trail he blazed, he was also a victim of a generational change: He and his parents were Republicans because of Lincoln, and he hewed to social policies of the Republican Party that worked for a man in his 60s who had attained wealth and a successful career. But the Depression, which hit the nation hard and its black citizens harder, caused those younger to switch allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democrats and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

His re-election bid in 1934 attracted national attention because it was the first race that featured an African-American challenging an African-American. DePriest lost to Arthur Mitchell.

DePriest eventually returned to Chicago and won a term on the City Council from the Third Ward. He died on May 19, 1951, at the age of 80 from complications that arose after he was hit by a bus.

His home was in an eight flat building he owned at 4536-38 S. King Drive South Parkway in DePriest's day. It is registered as a National Historic Landmark.


DePriest, Oscar Stanton

Congressman and businessman Oscar DePriest was born in Florence, Alabama, the child of former slaves. In 1878, as part of the Exodusters migration, the family emigrated to Kansas to escape poverty. DePriest went to Chicago in 1889 and worked as a painter and decorator, trades that led him to become a building contractor and later a successful real estate broker. He also turned out to be a tireless political organizer and established himself as a valuable member of the powerful Republican Party organization. The party slated him in 1904 for his victorious first race for a public position, a place on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. He won reelection in 1906, but his loss two years later sidelined him from political office until he won election as Chicago's first black alderman in 1915.

Rapid migration of African Americans to Chicago from the South drove up property values in the segregated South Side Black Belt, and DePriest capitalized on the resulting real estate opportunities to amass a considerable fortune. These new immigrants would also refuel DePriest's political career as he became the central black leader in Republican mayor William ("Big Bill") Thompson's machine — a formidable organization held together by patronage, generosity in political appointments, and extraordinary party loyalty among blacks. DePriests's big political break came in 1928 with the death of his mentor, Congressman Martin Madden. DePriest insisted that the party support his candidacy for Madden's old seat, and with its backing the district's swelling black majority elected him. When, in 1929, DePriest took his seat in the 71st Congress as the first African-American U.S. representative from a northern state, it was the first time in twenty-eight years that the House had had a black member.

In Congress, DePriest was an energetic, controversial figure who had little success in enacting his frequently introduced civil rights measures. His colleagues defeated his antilynching bill, a measure prohibiting government job discrimination in the South, a proposal to have blacks served in the House restaurant, and a plan for transfer of jurisdiction in criminal cases when a defendant feared local racial or religious prejudice. His most outstanding achievement was an amendment that Congress enacted in March 1933 to prohibit discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He also secured greater government support of Howard University and was a strong supporter of immigration restriction to preserve jobs for African Americans.

DePriest survived the first Democratic electoral sweeps of 1930 and 1932, but he lost two years later to a black Democrat, Arthur Mitchell, as African-American voters in Chicago gave up their traditional loyalty to the party of Abraham Lincoln and turned to the Democrats. DePriest resumed his real estate career, lost to Mitchell again in 1936, and served once more as a Chicago alderman between 1943 and 1947. He died of a kidney ailment in 1951.


DePriest, Oscar S.

The son of ex-slaves, DePriest became a businessman and respected Republican politician. First elected a Cook County commissioner, he won election as Chicago's first black alderman in 1915. His victory was attributable to the party's Second Ward machine and loyalty of African American women, who comprised 25 percent of black voters. They obtained suffrage by the State Woman Suffrage Amendment of 1913. Leading clubwoman Frances Barrier Williams (1855–1944) said that DePriest's triumph would provide “an effective weapon with which to combat prejudice and discrimination of all kinds” (Hendricks, 1998, p. 96).

DePriest made her assertion his mission and pursued it in Washington. Elected to the US House in 1928, the first African American congressman since 1901, he authored several key but failing offender protection and antilynching bills. The latter included fines and imprisonment for officials who allowed mobs to harm prisoners and, in cases of lynching, state-financed survivor compensations. He drafted a bill prohibiting racial discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a major source of black jobs during the Depression. Moreover, he increased Howard University's budget appropriations and nominated black cadets to US military academies. In spite of death threats, he also spoke to southern black audiences on the right to vote.


Harvard ROTC pioneer recalls his fight to serve

Author: Erint ImagesCharles V. “Chuck” DePriest (left), a retired Air Force surgeon and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, successfully fought a battle with Harvard to allow him to receive an ROTC commission through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chuck is shown with his brother, Oscar S. “Butch” DePriest IV, a Harvard College and Boston University School of Dental Medicine graduate who serves as a brigadier general in the Army Reserves.

Author: Erint ImagesCharles V. “Chuck” DePriest (left), a retired Air Force surgeon and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, successfully fought a battle with Harvard to allow him to receive an ROTC commission through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chuck is shown with his brother, Oscar S. “Butch” DePriest IV, a Harvard College and Boston University School of Dental Medicine graduate who serves as a brigadier general in the Army Reserves.

As musket fire rang out on Lexington Green this week to mark the first shots of the Revolutionary War, the thoughts of a retired soldier who grew up near the famed battle site turned to his own history of military service.

For Charles V. “Chuck” DePriest, the fight to don a uniform was as tough as anything he faced during his career as an Air Force officer.

“That was a long time ago,” said DePriest from his home in Tennessee. “But every year, about this time, I can’t help but think of what I had to go through to serve my country.”

The struggle began close to 40 years ago with the unlikely dream of a stubborn, blue-eyed black teen from the Boston suburbs to fly to Mars.

About the time the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, DePriest, a football star, science whiz and aspiring astronaut from Bedford High, mailed off his application to Harvard College.

The high school senior had nurtured his astral ambitions on the runway of nearby Hanscom Air Force Base, where he often eluded M.P.’s to sneak on the tarmac, lie on his back and suck in jet fumes as F-4s came screaming in overhead for a landing.

Four years before DePriest’s high school graduation, a former Navy test pilot named Neil Armstrong had stepped on the moon. Buzz Aldrin, who piloted the Eagle lunar module, and Columbia commander Michael Collins were West Point graduates who had served in the Air Force.

The flight plan to the Red Planet, DePriest figured, clearly led through the Wild Blue Yonder.

Military and public service, even in the overheated anti-war climate of Massachusetts, were no deterrents to DePriest. In the 1920s, his great-grandfather, Oscar S. DePriest, the son of a slave, bucked the Chicago ward bosses to become the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century. DePriest’s uncle died fighting in a segregated unit in World War II.

In April 1973, DePriest got into Harvard, joining his older brother, Oscar S. “Butch” DePriest IV, on campus. But the zeitgeist in Cambridge proved an obstacle to his ambition. In 1969, the Crimson faculty had voted to boot the oldest Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program in the country out of Harvard Yard, leaving students like DePriest with no Ivy League pathway to uniformed service.

But military education was another matter. In theory, Harvard’s cross-registration agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) gave DePriest access to MIT’s ROTC-sponsored military science courses and perhaps an Air Force commission.

DePriest picked up the gauntlet to challenge Harvard’s ROTC policy for financial reasons as well as career ambitions, as his father, a Harvard Medical School graduate and Army veteran, was no longer supporting the family.

“During my sophomore year, with my family situation, I couldn’t afford to go to school, so that was another reason to start looking into ROTC,” said DePriest.

The battle, however, was more than personal. DePriest was just the latest combatant in a fight going back to the earliest days of the country for men of color from Massachusetts to serve their nation in uniform.

Patriots like George Middleton, whose Beacon Hill home is a stop on Boston’s Black History Trail, successfully agitated to serve in the Continental Army under George Washington. The first black regiment in the Civil War, the famed 54th, was organized in Boston.

Early in his sophomore year, DePriest began calling on Harvard President Derek Bok to discuss his idea of getting a commission through MIT. His calls went unanswered. One spring afternoon, not long before the fall of Saigon, the determined yearling marched into ivy-covered Massachusetts Hall, barged into the president’s office, and asked Harvard’s top gun for a little backup.

“He wasn’t very happy with me, but he was an Army veteran and told me he’d try to help,” recalled DePriest.

Meanwhile, MIT’s Air Force ROTC director advised DePriest to sign up for Air Force basic training, apply for an ROTC scholarship and then petition Harvard to approve an accommodation with MIT.

So DePriest headed to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that summer for basic training and returned to Cambridge without an Afro, but with a scholarship. President Bok quietly approved the MIT arrangement. DePriest began taking ROTC-required coursework at MIT atop his pre-med studies.

By the end of DePriest’s junior year, the faculty had gotten wind of DePriest’s outflanking tactics and raised objections. DePriest’s uniformed presence on campus had made the breach in policy too obvious to ignore.

“They told me not to wear my uniform on campus, but of course I wore it anyway,” he said with a chuckle.

In an emotionally charged debate in University Hall, Henry Rosovsky, the powerful faculty dean and Army veteran, defended DePriest’s right to continue his education with an ROTC award.

“I always strongly believed it was a good thing for the Army to have Harvard-trained officers,” said Rosovsky. “I always thought it was a mistake to make it more difficult for those who wanted to serve to do so.”

“There were some faculty members who were very liberal in their views who wrongly believed their views could be imposed on students,” said Bok. “I clearly thought that was intolerant and wrong.”

Under pressure from Harvard’s president and top dean, the faculty formally voted to approve the arrangement DePriest was already pursuing.

A year later, in a ceremony in an elegant Georgian courtyard along the banks of the Charles River, Chuck DePriest was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.

DePriest entered Harvard Medical School, became a flight surgeon and served for 10 years on active duty, flying jet fighters and treating airmen and soldiers all over the world. Retiring from the Air Force as a major, he now works as a radiologist in Nashville, Tenn., where he lives with his wife and family.

Chuck also made a convert of his older brother to the military cause. After his own graduation from Harvard, the elder brother attended Boston University School of Dental Medicine and enrolled in the Army’s graduate ROTC program. The Bedford dentist now serves as a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, commanding a combat medical brigade out of Fort Devens.

Since the DePriests’ days in Cambridge, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy barring gays who declare their sexual preference from wearing a uniform has replaced the conflict in Vietnam as the Harvard faculty’s rationale for denying the presence of a full-fledged ROTC chapter on campus.

Speaking with the authority of historical perspective and of personal and family sacrifice, the DePriest brothers say that anyone qualified to serve ought to be given a chance to do so. They also argue that honorable service can co-exist with honorable dissent.

“It’s time for Harvard to embrace that lesson,” said Chuck DePriest. “The military didn’t come up with the policy. Congress did. The politicians have to change it. Why should someone who wants to attend ROTC at Harvard have to suffer because of what they do? Besides, Harvard takes millions of dollars for defense research. It’s hypocritical to reject ROTC funding for their students.”

DePriest shrugs over the fact that he never did get to Mars.

“I can’t complain,” he said. “I had a great career.”

But he did make history, leading the first successful assault on Harvard to bring military service closer to full acceptance on the Crimson campus.


Watch the video: Oscar DePriest Cheerleaders (June 2022).


Comments:

  1. Mazusar

    This only conditionality

  2. Milaan

    Actually. Tell to me, please - where I can find more information on this question?

  3. Meramar

    Excellent phrase and it is duly

  4. Esequiel

    I confirm. It was with me too. Let's discuss this issue. Here or at PM.

  5. Khayyat

    Like the lack of taste

  6. Jesaja

    I completely agree. Bullshit. But opinions, I see, are divided.



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