by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Given how dominant whites were in America at the time, it is quite surprising to find that, in the 2 September 1929 edition of the weekly national news magazine, TIME, which is the featured artifact from the Museum’s holdings for this post, there are two articles that highlight a pair of African-Americans in the worlds of politics and film. The former was Chicago’s Oscar De Priest, the only Black member of Congress, a name that would likely be more familiar, if at all, to readers, while the latter was actor Nina Mae McKinney, featured for her role in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film “Hallelujah” though virtually a forgotten name today.
De Priest was born in March 1871 in Florence, Alabama, just a half-dozen years after the Civil War and less than a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation. His family settled in Saline, Kansas when he was seven years old as they sought better opportunities after the end of Reconstruction. While large numbers of Blacks would migrate to Chicago and other northern American cities much later, he relocated to the Windy City at eighteen and worked as a painter and a decorator. Notably, it has been stated that he passed as white, because of his light skin, blue eyes, and sandy hair, in order to find decent employment.
De Priest eventually opened a contracting business and started to make inroads in African-American community affairs, including becoming a precinct secretary in the growing political machine apparatus in the Windy City. In 1904, he won a seat on the Board of Commissioners for Cook County, including Chicago, and served four years. Moving back into real estate, he became quite successful and wealthy by, for example, engaging in “blockbusting,” a practice in which owners of land were convinced to sell at below-market prices because of a fear that those of other classes or ethnicities would be moving into the area—this allowed new purchasers to realize greater profit when the land was then sold at a higher price.
In the city’s 2nd Ward, which grew to have an African-American constituency of more than half, white Republican leaders threw their support behind De Priest in 1915 for a seat on the Chicago City Council. His victory marked the first time that a Black person served on the body and he was known for both his facility for patronage and his promotion of civil rights issues. After two years and following an indictment for purported financial payments from gamblers on the South Side, De Priest resigned, though he was acquitted at trial with the renowned Clarence Darrow as his lawyer.
In 1924, he was elected as a committee member from the 3rd Ward, but the death, four years later, of the powerful, long-serving member of Congress, Martin Madden, opened a door to De Priest, as the G.O.P. machine in Chicago chose him to run for the seat, which included the mainly African-American area of Bronzeville and the Loop business district. Still, De Priest’s alleged deep ties with South Side vice and gambling led to concerns he might not be seated as an investigation was launched, though he was cleared. To prevent any challenges by white Southern Democrats, the House speaker, Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, swore in all members together rather than by state.
This achievement was another landmark as he was the first Black person from a northern state to win a seat in Congress and the only African-American in that body during his tenure and this elevated De Priest to national stature as a symbol of African-American race pride. Civil rights was again one of his key concerns, not to mention his own challenges with segregation and racism in Washington, though he hewed to the standard economic policies of the G.O.P., which dominated national politics during the Roaring Twenties, and publicly advocated against Communism.
After three terms, however, the onset of the Great Depression doomed De Priest’s reelection campaign in 1934 and he was unseated by a Black New Deal Democrat. De Priest did return to local Chicago politics by winning a seat on the city council in 1943, serving four years before losing a reelection effort. Otherwise, he continued his real estate work until his death in 1951 from injuries sustained when he was hit by a bus.
In the TIME article, titled “Bigger & Blacker,” it was stated the Mason-Dixon line “still divides the North from the South on Negro treatment,” but that “portly, grey-wooled Oscar De Priest crossed it for the first time since he took his seat as the only Negro Congressman” when he went to the Lexington Colored Fair in Kentucky and spoke to 5,000 African-Americans. He followed this by giving a speech in Harlem, the “capital of Black America,” and the magazine reported that the theme was identical.
That is, Representative De Priest addressed “the Negro’s use of his political power to attain his constitutional rights,” though his specific points varied from the Southern venue to the Northern. For example, in Lexington, he told the crowd, “until you make your votes felt, the white man will not respect you,” while in Harlem, he expanded his point:
If your district leader is a white man, pitch him out. You have a jimmy in your votes to better conditions. Use it. Don’t complain about race discrimination; change it through practical politics. When a Negro doesn’t want to elect a Negro, there is either jealousy or dirty money behind him.
In Kentucky, he stated that “if you’re going to get anywhere politically, you’ve got to learn not to accept payment for your vote,” while in Harlem he warned, “if white candidates come nosing around your district and trying to spend money for votes, take their money and beat them [at the polls] too.” He added that he wished whites would bring money to his district because “we’d take every cent they had and then send them to the dry cleaners.”
The address at Lexington found De Priest addressing his district appointments to the Army and Navy academies at West Point and Annapolis and he said that, as African-Americans served in all American wars, “I feel it my duty to recommend Negroes only, for through me is their only chance of gaining this opportunity.” In Harlem, he declared:
When I got to Congress and nominated my first candidate for West Point I picked the blackest boy I could find anywhere. My appointee has been writing disheartening letters . . . If the young man gets cold feet and quits West Point because of any racial discrimination, next time I’ll appoint a bigger and blacker Negro.
It was reported that there was just one instance in Kentucky in which Representative De Priest got close to the strong declarative approach he took in Harlem. When Alabama Senator James T. Heflin looked to have a physical altercation with De Priest at the Senate restaurant, as part of a Southern Democrats effort to keep him segregated in the nation’s capital, he insisted that to “punch De Priest in the nose” would garner him at least 50,000 votes in his next reelection campaign.
Meanwhile, De Priest let the audience in Lexington know that:
I occupy a serious position in America. They eyes of the civilized world are on Oscar De Priest. I have received more publicity than any other member of Congress. I will continue to fight for Negroes’ rights in Congress and use bathrooms, barber shops and restaurants [at the Capitol] whether my colleagues like it or not.
Out in Los Angeles, King Vidor, a native of Galveston, Texas who came to Hollywood in 1915 with his actor wife Florence, who became a star, and grew from a scenario writer for shorts to directing his first feature by the end of the decade, became a big name with 1925’s war romance, The Big Parade, starring Renée Adorée and John Gilbert. He followed three years later with The Crowd, which was a message movie that did not bring huge box-office numbers, though it was critically acclaimed.
Then came, Hallelujah, which was reworked into a sound film after production began and which Vidor tried to sell to MGM executives for three years. It was the first major studio production to feature an all-Black cast and the plot concerned Zeke, a young sharecropper, played by Daniel L. Haynes, lured by dancer Chick (Nina Mae McKinney) to a bar where he is set up in a dice game rigged by a tough named Hot Shot (William Fountaine.) The two men fight and the sharecropper shoots his brother amid the chaos with he and the dancer finding religion and each other until she bolts for the dice-playing criminal. Zeke follows, finds that Chick died in an accident, and then kills Hot Shot. Zeke served time for the murder, but on his release he marries a woman, played the great blues singer Victoria Spivey, who waited for him.
The TIME review stated that
Before the end of this picture you get the idea that King Vidor, who wrote and directed it, does not know much about Negroes but that he has guessed and reasoned out a lot. His story, simply yet sophisticated, does not go as deep into the way a black man’s mind works as, for instance, Eugene O’Neill went in Emperor Jones. It is a white man’s comment on the relationship between sex and religion, a comment in which sympathy and emotion replace the irony so easy to this kind of writing.
In terms of standout lines, McKinney was featured as was Haynes and, while it was asserted that “sometimes local color dams up the story” and there was “the temptation of spirituals,” the magazine added that “Vidor’s skill as a picture-maker is enough to make Hallelujah one of the best films of the year.” The scene that garnered the most attention is when Hot Shot fled through a swamp when an enraged Zeke chased after him and Irving Berlin’s tune The End of the Road” was also given kudos.
Moreover, McKinney was considered the best actress in the film and it was observed that she was still 17 and was found by the director when she appeared as a chorus girl in the popular stage musical Blackbirds of 1928, described by the Library of Congress as “an all-white creation for an all-black cast” and which made a name for the great tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.”
It has been said that Vidor, being from Texas, was familiar with Black life in his home state and that he used African-American advisors on dialog, staging and other elements as the director, who purportedly waived his fee, sought to bring realism to his production. By modern standards, the film would appear paternalistic, superficial and sanitized in its portrayal of Black life, though considering what race relations were in 1928, Vidor, who was nominated for an Oscar for best director in the early days of that award deserves no little credit for making the movie at all.
McKinney received many favorable reviews and was even called the Black Clara Bow, though, while she was given a five-year contract by MGM, no meaningful roles were provided for the actor and dancer. After it expired, she went to Europe and performed in film (including with the great Paul Robeson), on stage and in clubs, leading to the sobriquet of the Black Greta Garbo. She returned to America and performed sporadically into the 1950s, but died, at age 54, in 1967, largely forgotten.
Fayard Nicholas, of the famed dancing siblings, said of her that “she could act, sing, dance and wisecrack with the best of them, but she came along too early and there was no place for her.” Vidor, who praised McKinney publicly at the time that Hallelujah was made, spoke highly of her in his 1953 autobiography, writing of her talent, “It took no great effort to bring it out. She just had it. Whatever you wanted, whatever you visualized, she could do it.”
Given how marginalized Blacks were in Roaring Twenties America, it is somewhat remarkable to find that this issue of TIME provided a spotlight in its pages for Oscar De Priest and Nina Mae McKinney, both pioneers and trailblazers for African-Americans in their respective fields and broadly for the community.