Published January 13, 2015
It's no coincidence the first black major-party nominee for president calls Illinois home. The state has sent more blacks to Congress than any other, in large part due to the chronic segregation of Chicago's housing.
When Barack Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004, he followed a long line of black Illinois politicians to Capitol Hill. Both the first black from the North and the first black Democrat from any region to sit in the House and the first black female U.S. senator all came from Illinois.
It's also where the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 led to creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and where in 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. took his civil rights struggle to Chicago, dubbed the country's most segregated city.
In fact, segregation, in combination with machine politics, played a large role since 1928 in Illinois' contributing 16 black members of Congress — 14 in the House and two in the Senate. More recently, though, a black candidate for statewide office won every Illinois county, including rural, white ones.
"The main explanation for the large number of blacks in Congress from Illinois is the fact that residential segregation patterns in south Chicago created a firmly black-majority district long before they existed in other northern cities," said David Canon, a University of Wisconsin political science professor. "African-Americans are rarely elected in House districts that are not black majority."
Chicago's political machine, which rewarded those who could bring in important voting blocs, also helped black politicians rise as the black population grew.
"The machine politics of Chicago was based on everybody getting its share and coalitions, and everybody got a share of the pie," said Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois-Springfield political science professor.
The opportunities for black Chicago politicians were rooted in the Great Migration. Early in the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of blacks left the impoverished South and its legally enforced brand of discrimination for the North, where they could find better-paying jobs in quickly expanding industries.
From 1920 to 1940, the number of blacks in Illinois more than doubled to 387,466, 5 percent of the population. Now, the black population hovers around 15 percent, with about 1 million black Chicago residents alone.
By 1928, enough black residents had flocked to south Chicago to create one overwhelmingly black congressional district, joined by another in the 1970s and a third in the 1980s. With each opportunity to elect one of their own, black voters did.
Illinois' First Congressional District provided the first black congressman from the North in 1928 — Chicagoan Oscar Stanton De Priest, a wealthy Republican. Six years later, Arthur Wergs Mitchell became the first black Democrat elected to Congress, winning during the Depression against De Priest, a foe of government relief programs who seemed out of touch with his impoverished constituents.
Decades later, Illinoisans chose two black candidates for the U.S. Senate: Carol Moseley Braun in 1992 as the first black Democrat, and Obama in 2004.
Their paths were blazed by earlier statewide victories by black politicians like Chicago lawyer Roland Burris, elected Illinois comptroller in 1978, a job he won three times before being elected state attorney general in 1990.
"I'd say if there hadn't been a Roland Burris that there would not have been a Carol Braun or a Barack Obama," Burris said. "I had to lay the groundwork ... to perform in a high, statewide office."