June 12, 1929 – An African-American Woman at a White House Tea

As the U.S. House of Representatives history site reports, “Oscar De Priest was the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century, ending a 28–year absence of black Representatives.” De Priest represented the South Side district of Chicago in the first congressional district (adjacent to the 13th district, from which Barack Obama would later be elected as a U.S. Senator).

Oscar Stanton De Priest, member of the United States House of Representatives

Oscar Stanton De Priest, member of the United States House of Representatives

Herbert Hoover’s wife Lou now had a problem, however. She had planned to invite the wives of U.S. Congressmen to the White House, but inviting an African-American to the White House was a controversial move. But as an American Presidents blog post explains: “It would be difficult to ignore White House traditions, so canceling the event was not really an option. Nor would the Hoovers snub Mrs. DePriest by excluding her.”

The solution they arrived at was to invite the wives in several groups, finding out first which wives would be offended to be at the same social function as Mrs. DePriest. They further determined to have her at the last of the teas, so that southern wives would not boycott subsequent gatherings.

First Lady Lou Hoover

First Lady Lou Hoover

The blog post further notes:

One last preparation was needed: the morning of Mrs. DePriest’s expected visit, White House security and doormen were alerted ‘to be careful when a colored lady should present herself and say she had an appointment with Mrs. Hoover, lest they create a scene by refusing her admittance.’”

On this day in history, June 12, 1929, Mrs. Hoover received Mrs. DePriest and others in the White House Green Room. They then assembled for tea in the Red Room. Although the event went well, public reaction was heated:

“Some southern newspaper editors accused Mrs. Hoover of ‘defiling’ the White House. The Texas legislature went so far as to formally admonish her. President Hoover, in his memoirs, said that ‘the speeches of southern Senators and Congressmen… wounded [Mrs. Hoover] deeply.’ Mrs. Hoover’s secretary, Ruth Fesler, later recalled that the first lady ‘stood her ground; she had done the right thing and she knew it.’”

Mrs. Jessie De Priest

Mrs. Jessie De Priest

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