By Jueseppi B.
Harold Lee Washington (April 15, 1922 – November 25, 1987) was an American lawyer and politician who became the first African-American Mayor of Chicago, serving from 1983 until his death in 1987.
|51st Mayor of Chicago
April 29, 1983 – November 25, 1987
||David Duvall Orr
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois’s 1st district
January 5, 1981 – April 30, 1983
||Bennett M. Stewart
||Charles A. Hayes
|Member of the Illinois Senate
from the 26th district
|Member of the Illinois House of Representatives
from the 26th district
||April 15, 1922
Chicago, Illinois, United States
||November 25, 1987(aged 65)
Chicago, Illinois, United States
||Oak Woods CemeteryChicago, Illinois
||Nancy Dorothy Finch
(July 22, 1942–February 25, 1950)
Mary Ella Smith (engaged)
Northwestern University School of Law
||United States Army Air Forces
|Years of service
||World War II
HAROLD WASHINGTON THE LIFE AND TIMES PART 1/6
HAROLD WASHINGTON THE LIFE AND TIMES PART 2/6
HAROLD WASHINGTON THE LIFE AND TIMES PART 3/6
HAROLD WASHINGTON THE LIFE AND TIMES PART 4/6
HAROLD WASHINGTON THE LIFE AND TIMES PART 5/6
HAROLD WASHINGTON THE LIFE AND TIMES PART 6/6
Early years and military service
Harold Washington was born on April 15, 1922, to Roy and Bertha Washington. His father had been one of the first precinct captains in the city, a lawyer and a Methodist minister. His mother, Bertha, left a small farm near Centralia, Illinois, to make a fortune in Chicago as a singer. She married Roy soon after arriving in Chicago and had three children, one named Kevin and the other named Ramon Price (from a later marriage), former artist and chief curator of The DuSable Museum of African American History.
Washington grew up in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, at the time it was the center of black culture in the entire Midwest (black culture has since spread throughout the entire South Side of Chicago and the south suburbs). Washington attended DuSable High School, then a newsegregated high school, and was a member of the first graduating class. In a 1939 citywide track meet, Washington placed first in the 110 meter high hurdles event, and second in the 220 meter low hurdles event. Between his junior and senior year of high school, Washington dropped out, claiming that he no longer felt challenged by the classwork. He worked at a meat packing plant for a time before his father helped him get a job at the U.S. Treasury. There he met Dorothy Finch, whom he married soon after—Washington was 20, and Dorothy 17. Seven months later, the U.S. was drawn into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In 1942, Washington was drafted into the war and sent overseas as part of a segregated unit of the Army Air Forces Engineers. In the Philippines, Washington was a part of a unit building runways. Eventually, Washington rose to the rank of First Sergeant in the Air Force. In her biography of Harold Washington, Florence Hamlish Levinsohn surmises that the three years Washington spent fighting for his country in the South Pacific while experiencing racial prejudice and discrimination helped shape his views on racial justice in the mayoral run to come.
Northwestern University School of Law
Washington then studied at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. During this time, Washington divorced from Dorothy Finch. By some accounts, Harold and Dorothy had simply grown apart after Washington was sent to war during the first year of his marriage. Others saw both as young and headstrong, the relationship doomed from the beginning. Another friend of Washington’s deemed Harold “not the marrying kind.” He would not marry again, but continued to have relationships with other women; those who knew his longtime secretary would later report her commenting “If every woman Harold slept with stood at one end of City Hall, the building would sink five inches into LaSalle Street“.
At Northwestern, Washington was the only black student in his class. (He joined six women in the class, one of them being Dawn Clark Netsch). As at Roosevelt, he entered school politics. In 1951, his last year, he was elected treasurer of the Junior Bar Association (JBA). The election was largely symbolic, however, and Washington’s attempts to give the JBA more authority at Northwestern were largely unsuccessful.
On campus, Washington joined the Nu Beta Epsilon fraternity, largely because he and the other minorities which constituted the fraternity were blatantly excluded from the other fraternities on campus. Overall, Washington stayed away from the activism that defined his years at Roosevelt. During the evenings and weekends, he worked to supplement his GI Bill income. He received his J.D. in 1952.
Mayor of Chicago (1983–1987)
In the February 22, 1983, Democratic mayoral primary, community organizers registered more than 100,000 new African American, Latino and poor and independent white voters, while the white vote was split between the incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and future mayor Richard M. Daley, son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Washington won with 37% of the vote, versus 33% for Byrne and 30% for Daley.
Although winning the Democratic primary is normally tantamount to election in heavily Democratic Chicago, after his primary victory Washington found that his Republican opponent, former state legislator Bernard Epton (earlier considered a nominal stand-in), was supported by many white Democrats and ward organizations, including the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, Alderman Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak. Epton’s campaign referred to, among other things, Washington’s conviction for failure to file income tax returns. (He had paid the taxes, but had not filed a return.)
However, Washington appealed to his constituency in his mayoral political campaign, and stressed such things as reforming the Chicago patronage system and the need for a jobs program in a tight economy. In the April 12, 1983, mayoral general election, Washington defeated Epton by 3.7%, 51.7% to 48.0%, to become mayor of Chicago. Washington was sworn in as mayor on April 29, 1983, and resigned his Congressional seat the following day.
During his tenure as mayor, Washington lived at the Hampton House apartments in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Among the changes he made to the city’s government was creating its first environmental-affairs department under the management of longtime Great Lakes environmentalist Lee Botts.
Washington’s victory marked the end of race lines, such as Western Avenue in Chicago Lawn, which had kept black Americans from living in white neighborhoods.
Washington’s first term in office was characterized by ugly, racially polarized battles dubbed “Council Wars“, referring to the then-recent Star Wars films. A 29–21 City Council majority refused to enact Washington’s reform legislation and prevented him from appointing reform nominees to boards and commissions. Other first-term items include overall city population loss, increased crime, and a massive decrease in ridership on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). This helped earn the city the nickname “Beirut on the Lake“, and many people wondered if Chicago would ever recover or face the more permanent declines of other cities in the U.S. Midwest.
The twenty-nine, also known as the Vrdolyak Twenty-nine, was led by “the Eddies”: Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, Finance Chair Edward Burke and Parks Commissioner Edmund Kelly. The Eddies were supported by the younger Daley (now State’s Attorney), U.S. Congressmen Dan Rostenkowski and William Lipinski, and other powerful white Democrats.
During one of the first Council meetings, Harold Washington was unable to get his appointments approved. Harold Washington and the twenty-one ward representatives that supported him, walked out of the meeting after a quorum had been established. Vrdolyak and the other twenty-eight were able to appoint all of the boards and chairs. Later lawsuits submitted by Harold Washington and others were dismissed because it was determined that the appointments were legally made.
Washington ruled by veto. The twenty-nine could not get the thirtieth vote they needed to override Washington’s veto; African American, Latino and white liberal aldermen supported Washington despite pressure from the Eddies. Meanwhile, in the courts, Washington kept the pressure on to reverse the redistricting of City Council wards that white Democrats had pushed through during the Byrne years. When special elections were ordered in 1986, victorious Washington-backed candidates gave him a 24–26 split council. Six weeks later when Luis Gutiérrez won the run-off election in the 26th ward Washington had the 25-25 split he needed. His vote as chairman of the City Council enabled him to break the deadlock and enact his programs.
Washington defeated former mayor Jane Byrne in the February 24, 1987, Democratic mayoral primary by 7.2%, 53.5% to 46.3%, and in the April 7, 1987, mayoral general election defeated Vrdolyak (Illinois Solidarity Party) by 11.8%, 53.8% to 42.8%, with Northwestern University business professor Donald Haider (Republican) getting 4.3%, to win reelection to a second term as mayor. Cook County Assessor Thomas Hynes (Chicago First Party), a Daley ally, dropped out of the race 36 hours before the mayoral general election. During Washington’s short second term, the Eddies fell from power: Vrdolyak became a Republican, Kelly was removed from his powerful parks post, and Burke lost his power as finance chair.
On November 25, 1987, at 11:00 a.m., Chicago Fire Department paramedics were called to City Hall. Washington’s press secretary, Alton Miller, had been discussing school board issues with the mayor when Washington suddenly slumped over on his desk, falling unconscious. After failing to revive Washington in his office, paramedics rushed him to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Further resuscitation attempts failed, and Washington was pronounced dead at 1:36 p.m. At Daley Plaza, Richard Keen, project director for the Westside Habitat for Humanity, announced Washington’s official time of death to a separate gathering of Chicagoans. Initial reactions to the pronouncement of his death were of shock and sadness, as many blacks believed that Washington was the only top Chicago official who would address their concerns.
Thousands of Chicagoans attended his wake in the lobby of City Hall between November 27 and November 29, 1987. On November 30, Rev. B. Herbert Martin officiated Washington’s “upbeat, hard-clapping funeral service” in Christ Universal Temple at 119th Street and Ashland Avenue in Chicago. After the service, Washington was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side of Chicago.
Immediately after Washington’s death, rumors about how Washington died began to surface. On January 6, 1988, Dr. Antonio Senat, Washington’s personal physician, denied “unfounded speculations” that Washington had cocaine in his system at the time of his death, or that foul play was involved. Cook County Medical Examiner Robert J. Stein performed an autopsy on Washington and concluded that Washington had died of a heart attack. Washington had weighed 284 pounds (129 kg), and suffered from hypertension, high cholesterol levels, and an enlarged heart.
On June 20, 1988, Alton Miller again indicated that drug reports on Washington had come back negative, and that Washington had not been poisoned prior to his death. Dr. Stein stated that the only drug in Washington’s system had been lidocaine, which is used to stabilize the heart after a heart attack takes place. The drug was given to Washington either by paramedics, or by doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago student David Nelson painted Mirth & Girth, a caricature that depicted Washington wearing women’s lingerie and holding a pencil, which was briefy displayed in a hallway at the school on May 11, 1988. The painting kicked off a First Amendment and civil rights controversy between Art Institute students and black aldermen. Nelson and the ACLU eventually split a US $95,000 (1994, US $138,000 in 2008) settlement from the city.
Coincidentally, Bernie Epton, Washington’s opponent in the racially charged 1983 general election, would follow him in death 18 days later, on December 13, 1987.
Harold Washington Remembered
Despite the bickering in City Council, Washington seemed to relish his role as Chicago’s ambassador to the world. At a party held shortly after his re-election on April 7, 1987, he said to a group of supporters, “In the old days, when you told people in other countries that you were from Chicago, they would say, ‘Boom-boom! Rat-a-tat-tat!’ Nowadays, they say [crowd joins with him], ‘How’s Harold?’!”
In later years, various city facilities and institutions would be named or renamed after the late mayor to commemorate his legacy. The new building housing the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, located at 400 South State Street, was named the Harold Washington Library Center. The former Loop College in downtown Chicago was renamed Harold Washington College.
In addition to the downtown facilities, the 40,000-square-foot Harold Washington Cultural Center was opened to the public in August 2004, in the historic South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville, at 4701 S. King Drive. Across from the Hampton House apartments where Washington lived, a city park was renamed Harold Washington Park, which was known for “Harold’s Parakeets”, a colony of feral monk parakeets that inhabited an ash trees in the park. On the campus of Chicago State University, at 9501 S. King Drive, one of the campus’s buildings is named Harold Washington Hall.
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