Tempest in a Teapot – Lou Henry Hoover and the DePriest Tea Incident

by Spencer Howard

Jessie DePriest.  Image courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

When Lou Henry Hoover became First Lady in 1929, one of her main responsibilities was to coordinate the social functions at the White House, and the first major event on her agenda was to invite the wives of the members of Congress to the White House for tea.  The Congressional teas served as an opportunity to introduce the wives of newly elected Congressmen to Washington society.  The guest list actually ran to over 600 ladies, not just wives but also daughters, nieces, granddaughters and sisters of members of Congress – any woman or young lady who derived her social status from her connection to a member of Congress.  Such a large number necessitated a coordinated series of teas rather than one large event.

Mrs. Hoover faced an unusually delicate situation – for the first time in 30 years, an African-American had been elected to Congress, and both political and social Washington were abuzz with the implications.

Oscar Stanton DePriest was the son of former slaves, born in 1871 in Florence, Alabama.  He settled in 1889 in Chicago’s Second Ward, a predominantly African American community, and became a successful businessman.  In 1914, he was the first African American to be elected to the Chicago City Council.  When Rep. Martin Madden, who represented Chicago’s South Side, died unexpectedly in April 1928, DePriest was chosen by the local Republican committee to replace Madden on the November ballot.  DePriest won the five-way contest with 48% of the vote.

When the new Congress convened in April 1929, Southerners sought to prevent DePriest from being seated by blocking the swearing-in of the entire Illinois delegation.  Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth decided to swear in the entire House as one body – swearing in all members at one time, he explained, would preserve the decorum of the ceremony.  Of course the hostility did not end once DePriest had been seated.  North Carolina Democrat George Pritchard refused to occupy an office next to DePriest, and other Southerners declined to serve on any committee with DePriest.

Mrs. Hoover and her social secretary, Mary Randolph, were fully aware of the situation and approached the Congressional teas with caution, but there was no doubt that Mrs. Jessie DePriest would be included.  They arranged five teas.  The first, on May 27, 1929, hosted the wives of the ranking members.  The next three divided the remainder of the list alphabetically, with a few individuals out of sequence when they were not available for their assigned date:  A-H on May 29, H-O on June 4, and O-Z on June 6.  Jessie DePriest did not receive and invitation for May 29.  Instead, she was quietly invited to a fifth tea, on June 12.

The June 12 tea was a small affair, just fourteen guests — the wives of some of President Hoover’s cabinet members; the wives of three members of Congress from New York, Pennsylvania, and California; Mrs. Hoover’s sister, Mrs. Jean Henry Large; and Mrs. Hoover’s personal secretary, Ruth Fesler.  At least two of the women had already attended one of the earlier teas.  One man attended with his wife — James C. Dunn, who was the Chief of Protocol for the State Department.

When word got out, the tea became national news and a scandal in the South.  Mrs. DePriest’s attendance as an invited guest at a White House social function accorded her social legitimacy, and by implication, equal standing with the white guests.

Condemnation rolled in, especially from the South.  Editorials from the region ranged from scathing to hysterical.  The Texas legislature voted to formally censure Mrs. Hoover for inviting Mrs. DePriest to the White House.  The legislatures of Georgia, Mississippi and Florida passed similar resolutions.  Northern and Midwestern newspapers wondered what the uproar was all about, and the black press throughout the nation spoke in glowing terms of Mrs. Hoover’s action.

The President’s staff immediately sought to limit the political damage.  Hoover’s press secretary insisted that Mrs. Hoover’s teas were actually official events, not social ones.  Rep. DePriest, however, used the opportunity to make a statement about black equality.  He told the press he was “immensely gratified” that his wife had received social recognition from the White House.  “My wife enjoyed the experience and the social contacts very much,” he said.  “She was treated excellently and there was no indication of a desire to discriminate in her case.  Naturally, she is very much pleased with the whole affair.”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Hoover received hundreds of letters from all over the country commenting on the event.  Most, but not all, from the South expressed anger, disappointment or shame.  Letters from the rest of the country were overwhelmingly positive, even congratulatory.  Over time, the furor faded, but the political repercussions, especially in the South, continued through President Hoover’s failed bid for reelection in 1932.  As for Lou Henry Hoover, the 1929 Congressional teas were the only Congressional teas she hosted for the remainder of her husband’s Presidency.

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