Harold Washington

Forty-Third Mayor of the City of Chicago (1983-87)

Born 1922 - Died 1987

Harold Washington’s first taste of politics came as he watched his father Roy run for 3rd ward alderman in 1947. Roy came in first, but would subsequently lose in a runoff election.1 The father would teach the political craft to his son, and following Roy’s death in 1953, Harold followed in his footsteps. He joined the 3rd ward Democrats organization in fall 1954, and ended up taking over his father’s precinct and position in the corporation counsels office.2

Harold began working hard within the Democratic machine, but also kept busy building himself up in labor, church, and community groups.3 He was then given the responsibility of bringing the Young Democrats organization back to life. The purpose of this group was to bring young businessmen and professionals into the machine. Washington greatly succeeded expectation, growing it exponentially. Regardless of this success, Mayor Daley disbanded the group in 1962.4

Afterwards, Washington was slated for a state legislative post, and sent to Springfield. Once there, he attacked the machine head on. The only thing that saved him from Daley’s wrath was intervention on his behalf from a ward boss.5 Washington would remain in step with the party on electoral matters, but on legislative affairs he was his own man. This was enough to propel him into the Illinois State Senate, and enough to keep Daley watching his closely - he hated Washington’s independence.

Around this time Washington had some issues with the law, including spending 36 days in jail in 1972 for failing to file income tax returns for four years. Also, his law license had been suspended from 1970-76 for taking legal fees without performing legal services.6 Throughout all of this Washington remained fully active in politics, and by 1980 his independent streak had fully removed him from the Democratic machine.7

In the 1983 election, he took on incumbent Jane Byrne with a campaign full of religious symbolism. Handling the debates well, he was able to take the poor black wards away from the machine and into his camp. It would be the first time in Chicago history that black voters would speak with what was practically one united voice.8 Winning the election, Washington became the first black mayor of Chicago.

On Thanksgiving eve in 1987, he would die at his desk of a heart attack.

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