Illinois

Vintage Chicago Tribune: Remembering Mayor Harold Washington

The city unexpectedly lost Harold Washington — its first black mayor — 35 years ago today in Chicago.

This was noted by Tribune reporter Robert Davis Washington left “an indelible mark on political history, but an uncertain future for the city he had just begun to control.”

Washington, who had pledged to serve the city for 20 years, suffered a heart attack as he sat at his desk just nine months after being re-elected to a second term and with most of the city’s 50 aldermen finally working with him. He was pronounced dead at 1:36 PM on November 25, 1987.

At the beginning of this year, the city celebrated art 100th anniversary birth of Washington. Here are some key things know about his life:

  • Deep Chicago roots: Washington was born on April 15, 1922, at Cook County Hospital, grew up in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, and was one of the first graduates of Dusable High School when it opened in 1935, serving mostly blacks whose families or ancestors had come to Chicago from the South. America during the Great Migration.
  • He rose through the ranks of the democratic machine and then set out to destroy it: In the early 1950s, Washington, then a law student at Northwestern University, began working for Aldo’s 3rd Division. Ralph Metcalf, a former Olympian who was later elected to Congress. Washington climbed the ladder of the Democratic machine, eventually winning election to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1965, the state Senate in 1976, and—despite a brief stint in prison in the early 1970s for failing to file a tax return declaration – to Congress in 1980. But along the way, he increasingly asserted his independence against the machine, and as then-Mayor Jane Byrne steadily lost the support of many black supporters, Washington was encouraged to run for the city’s top office. Washington won the Democratic primary in a landslide, beating not only the incumbent but another challenger named Richard M. Daley, the son of the late mayor, who himself had at times encouraged Metcalf to leave Washington. Washington defeated Republican Bernie Epton in the general election, despite Epton’s support from many high-ranking Democrats, some of whom tried to stoke racist fears in white neighborhoods about the prospects of a black mayor. In his “combative” inaugural address, the new mayor “pronounced the death of the Democratic machine,” the Tribune wrote at the time.
  • One of his main competitors remains in the city council: Washington’s first years in office were marked by a racially heated “council war” with old opponents who, embittered by his victory, formed a white majority on the City Council behind Ald. Ed Vrdolyak thwart the mayor’s agenda. This led to court battles and an “alternative” city budget. And in September 1983, at “one of the most heated council meetings in years, Vrdolyak questions Washington’s courage and the mayor threatens to punch him in the mouth,” as the Tribune reported two years later. After that, as the Tribune notes, Vrdolyak lowered his profile in the Royal Wars, “allowing his ally Ald. Edward Burke, take public leadership in challenging the mayor.” In 1984, for example, Burke tried to remove Washington from office when he failed to file an ethics form on time. Burke is now the longest serving board member on the board. But in 2019, shortly after celebrating 50 years on the council, he was accused of attempted extortion. Burke is still awaiting trial.

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— Corey Rumor, Visual Reporter

History of Chicago | More newsletters | Puzzles and games | Today’s edition of the electronic newspaper

See highlights of Washington’s service in Chicago through the eyes of Tribune photographers. See more.

Harold Washington is sworn in as mayor of Chicago by District Judge Charles Freeman on April 29, 1983. At right are Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, outgoing mayor Jane Byrne and her husband Jay McMullen.

Other black politicians have previously run for mayor of Chicago. Most of those past campaigns were quixotic, symbolic, and ultimately futile. But in 1983, things were different. Read more.

Angry supporters of Mayor Harold Washington mock council meetings after Ald.  Ed Vrdolyak seized control of the podium on May 2, 1983. Vrdolyak took control of the meeting after Mayor Washington left and elected himself vice chairman of the committee.

Washington’s accession as Chicago’s first black mayor did not sit well with the old guard. Rebellion was inevitable. Read more.

  • Photo gallery: Chicago’s board wars pit brash white aldermen against reform-minded Washington
Mayor Harold Washington (center) raises his hand as he signs an executive order to ensure that all Chicagoans, regardless of race or citizenship, have fair and equal access to municipal amenities, opportunities and services on March 7, 1985.  Along with Washington is his Latin American Advisory Commission.

Washington signs an executive order ending the city’s practice of asking job and license applicants about their U.S. citizenship and halting city agencies’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Read more.

  • Chronology: Chicago’s 40-Year History as a Sanctuary City
In 1987, Mayor Harold Washington was enthusiastically joined during a visit to Robert Taylor's home.
Vintage Chicago Tribune

Vintage Chicago Tribune

Every week

The Vintage Tribune Newsletter is a deep dive into the Chicago Tribune archives, featuring photos and stories about the people, places and events that define the city’s past, present and future.

Washington by a small margin former Mayor Jane Byrne in the primary before becoming Chicago’s first mayor in a dozen years to win re-election. And now he had more supporters on the Chicago City Council — 27 out of 50 seats.

“Tonight we celebrate not the victory of one candidate, but the mandate of a movement,” he told a jubilant crowd at Navy Pier. Read more.

Chairman Bobby Rush, from left, Anna Langford, Eugene Sawyer, Jesus

Upon hearing of Washington’s death, one mourner in Daley Plaza shouted, “He’s not done.” In the days that followed, the city came together like it never had when he was alive. Read more.

Students salute the hearse carrying the coffin of Mayor Harold Washington as the motorcade passes Simeon Vocational High School on November 30, 1987. South Side residents filed out of their homes to stand in the rain to pay their last respects to the late mayor as the hearse passed by.

For many Chicagoans, the election of a black mayor still seemed as miraculous on the day Washington died – November 25, 1987 – as it did the night the ballots were counted on April 12, 1983. Read more.

  • Paul Sullivan: My 40-year Chicago Tribune reminisces about some of the most interesting people I’ve met along the way, from Mike Royke to Carlos Sambran and Washington
Harold Washington greets supporters during a campaign rally in Loup on February 27, 1983, just days after winning the Democratic mayoralty.  Note the Punch 9 poster in the background.

In the city’s long and politically colorful history, there have been 56 mayors drawn to the job for a variety of salable and admirable reasons. Few, Kogan argues, were as fascinating and important as Washington, the city’s 51st mayor. Read more.

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