Harold Washington: Chicago’s First African American Mayor

harold washington chicago first african american mayorPhoto Credit

I often wonder if the man who recorded all of the CTA announcements was compensated properly for rattling off, “This is Library — State and Van Buren. Doors open on the right at Library — State and Van Buren.” It’s a mouthful. And, due to a recent vote by the CTA board, I’m hoping Mr. CTA Voice is paid by the word. But now, as you don your messenger bag and gather your RedEye you’ll hear, “This is Harold Washington Library — State and Van Buren.”

Most Chicagoans have heard of Harold Washington, but some newbies or youngin’s might wonder what he did to warrant making the name of this stop longer than the last name of that Russian ballet dancer I dated in my late teens.

Harold Washington’s most well-known achievement was becoming the first black mayor to the city of Chicago in 1983. Not only was his victory a first, but the campaign itself was an activist effort, registering more than 100,000 new African American voters. The rhetoric is similar to that surrounding the Obama election: Washington inspired voters who had previously felt excluded from the electoral process, and built his campaign on their renewed enthusiasm. Once taking the primary for the Democrats, new challenges arose. In a city so heavily Democratic, usually the Democratic primary winner easily takes the run for mayor. Yet many white Democratic voters vowed to vote Republican, not willing to vote for a black candidate.

Still, on April 12th of 1983, Harold Washington succeeded Mayor Jane Byrne. And a city was changed.

Washington created the city’s first environmental affairs department. He tried appointing progressive nominees in various departments, but a 29-21 City Council majority wouldn’t approve his reform legislation. The stand-offs between Mayor Washington and the City Council were called the “Council Wars” — a nod to the then-popular Star Wars films. Many political scientists and historians point to racial polarization as the cause for the disagreements. Major issues the mayor attempted to address during his term were lower numbers in city population, a decreased use of the CTA, and a spike in crime levels.

Before he was mayor, Washington was a student and an activist. Washington was one of the first students enrolled at Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University), a school founded on granting access to higher education to minority groups. At the university, he chaired many fund-raising efforts and served on a committee that worked to outlaw covenants that legally barred certain minorities from purchasing real estate in white neighborhoods. He was student council president, where he petitioned to have student representation, via the student council, on the faculty committee, so students were actively engaged in decision-making that would ultimately affect their education. His approach to activism was subtle, avoiding more extreme tactics like sit-ins, working from inside the system. After his undergraduate education at Roosevelt, Washington went on to Northwestern University School of Law, the only black student in his class. After law school, Washington served in the Illinois House (1965-1976), the Illinois Senate (1976-1980), and the U.S. House (1980-1983). During his time in the Illinois Senate, he worked to pass the Human Rights Act of 1970.

On November 25th, 1987, while at work at his mayoral office in City Hall, Washington fell unconscious at his desk, and his staff called paramedics. He was pronounced dead later that afternoon. While foul play was alleged, it was eventually determined that Washington had died of a heart attack, with a medical history of hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity.

Since his death, several Chicago institutions have come to bear his name: Harold Washington College, Harold Washington Cultural Center at 4701 S. King Drive, and The Harold Washington Library Center at 400 South State Street. Now, the brown line stop serving the library will tack his name onto its title. Twenty-three years after his death, and our city is still trying to find ways to honor this man. I think that says something about his character, and his impact. So, the next time you find yourself bumbling about downtown on a day off, duck into the Harold Washington Library and do some digging of your own. The man’s life story is fascinating. Below are some books to check out. Heck, you might even get through an entire chapter in the amount of time it takes Mr. CTA Voice to announce the new name of Harold’s L stop.

Books on Harold Washington:

    –Pierre Claval and Wim Wievel’s Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods: Progressive City Government in Chicago

    –Antonio Dickey and Marc PoKempner’s Harold!

    –Hamlish Levinsohn’s Harold Washington: A Political Biography

    –Alton Miller’s Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man

    –Gary Rivlin’s Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race

    –Naurice Roberts’ Harold Washington: Mayor with a Vision

    –Henry J. Young’s The Black Church and the Harold Washington Story: The Man, The Message, The Movement

Mary-Margaret McSweene

About Mary-Margaret McSweene

Mary-Margaret McSweene makes her home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago with the love of her life, a pit bull/black lab mix, named Jake. Buying old things that no longer function but offer extreme aesthetic pleasure is her vice; typewriters and rotary phones are favorites. Mary-Margaret also believes that anything in life can be articulated by a Tom Petty song.

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