William L. Dawson, "Windy City" congressman

William L.
Mon, 1886-04-26

*William Levi Dawson was born on this date in 1886 in Albany, Georgia. He was the first African American to chair a regular House of Representatives committee.

William Levi Dawson became one of Chicago's most influential politicians, serving as an elected representative and a political power broker in that city. In this way, he parallels the rising significance of African Americans in Democratic politics of the twentieth century. Three years after he graduated magna cum laude from Fisk University in Tennessee (1912), Dawson moved to Chicago to study law at Northwestern University; once finished, he entered into local politics.

In 1942, after serving as alderman on the Chicago City Council, Dawson successfully ran for Congress, holding his seat until retiring in 1970. William Dawson spoke out about the poll tax and was credited with defeating the Winstead Amendment, which would have allowed military personnel to choose whether or not they would serve in integrated units. In 1949, Dawson became chair of the House Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments (later renamed the Committee on Government Operations), making him the first African American to chair a regular Congressional Committee.

In Chicago, where his constituents knew him as simply "The Man," Dawson developed a considerable power base by awarding political appointments to his allies. Similarly, President John F. Kennedy acknowledged Dawson's work in the 1960 campaign by offering him the Postmaster General's position. Dawson, however, turned the position down, preferring to remain in the House where he felt he could do the most good. For all of the power he amassed, Dawson remained connected to his constituency. He returned to his district often and spent part of each day in his district office, visiting with constituents and working to solve their problems. He died in 1970.

Black Americans In Congress 1870-1989.
Bruce A. Ragsdale & Joel D. Treese
U.S. Government Printing Office
Raymond W. Smock, historian and director 1990

To Become a Legislator

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Dawson, William L.