Washington, Harold, 1922-1987Variant names
Harold Lee Washington (April 15, 1922 – November 25, 1987) was an American lawyer and politician who was the 51st Mayor of Chicago. Washington became the first African American to be elected as the city's mayor in April 1983 after a multiracial coalition of progressives supported his election. He served as mayor from April 29, 1983 until his death on November 25, 1987. Born in Chicago and raised in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Washington became involved in local 3rd Ward politics under Chicago Alderman and future Congressman Ralph Metcalfe after graduating from Roosevelt University and Northwestern University School of Law. Washington was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 1983, representing Illinois's first district. Washington had previously served in the Illinois State Senate and the Illinois House of Representatives from 1965 until 1976.
Harold Washington was born on April 15, 1922, in Chicago, Illinois. His mother, Bertha Price, left his father, Roy Lee Washington, a minister, lawyer, and Democratic politician, and her four children when Harold was a toddler. After his parents divorced in 1928, Washington lived with his father, who married Arlene Jackson, an area schoolteacher, in 1935. Roy Washington’s connections with the influential black Democrats in Chicago, forged while he was a precinct captain in the predominantly black South Side, provided his son with many political contacts. Accompanying his father to political rallies and meetings, Washington learned about Chicago politics by observing future Representative Arthur Mitchell, William Dawson, and Ralph Metcalfe. Harold Washington attended Forrestville School and DuSable High School in Chicago before dropping out to work in a meat–packing factory. Interested in athletics, he competed as an amateur boxer and a hurdler. In 1941, Washington married Dorothy Finch. The couple had no children and divorced in 1951. Drafted into the military in 1942, Washington served with the U.S. Air Force Engineers in the Pacific until 1946. After World War II, he attended Roosevelt University in Chicago, one of the few integrated universities in the nation. During his senior year he was class president—the first elective position of his career. After earning a B.A. in political science in 1949,he went on toreceive a J.D. from Northwestern University’s School of Law in 1952, joining his father in a private law practice in Chicago once he passed the bar in 1953.
When Roy Washington died in 1953, Harold Washington succeeded him as a precinct captain in the Third Ward regular Democratic organization in 1954. He also continued practicing law, joining the city corporation counsel’s office as an assistant prosecutor from 1954 to 1958. Beginning in 1960, he served for four years as an arbitrator for the Illinois Industrial Commission. Washington bolstered his political experience and credentials by serving in the Illinois state house of representatives from 1965 to 1976 and in the Illinois state senate from 1976 to 1980. As a state legislator, Washington revealed an independent streak that foreshadowed his eventual rift with the Chicago machine. Although he often followed the “idiot card”—the derogatory name for the voting instructions assembled for machine candidates, Washington defied organization leaders on occasion, backing liberal agendas such as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a fair housing code, and the establishment of a statewide holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite some legal problems—Washington spent a month in jail on a 1971 conviction for failure to file income tax returns—he managed to maintain political viability.
In 1977, Washington entered the special primary held to replace Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley after his sudden death. Aggravated by the Democratic organization, which he believed stifled independent black politicians,Washington decided to challenge the machine–backed candidate, Michael Bilandic, for the Democratic mayoral nomination. Unable to raise sufficient funds, he focused much of his attention on Chicago’s South Side. During the campaign, he likened the city’s black population to a “sleeping giant,” predicting that if “the potential black vote ever woke up, we’d control the city.” Washington finished a distant third, with only 11 percent of the vote, in a field of four contenders. Unapologetic after his failed mayoral bid, Washington went on the offensive, promising voters that his split with the machine would be permanent. “I’m going to do that which maybe I should have done 10 or 12 years ago,” Washington exclaimed. “I’m going to stay outside that damned Democratic Party and give it hell.”
True to his word, Washington jumped at the chance to challenge freshman Representative Bennett Stewart, the machine incumbent in the 1980 Democratic primary for Chicago’s South Side seat in the House. Well known in the majority–black district, which included middle–class and poor neighborhoods running southward along Lake Michigan as well as the downtown commercial Loop, Washington emphasized his independence from City Hall during his campaign. Garnering nearly 50 percent of the vote in the primary, Washington defeated Stewart, who placed third in a field of four candidates including Ralph Metcalfe, Jr. (the son of the late Representative). In the November general election, Washington trounced his Republican opponent, George Williams, securing 95 percent of the vote and earning a seat in the 97th Congress (1981–1983). Sworn in on January 3, 1981, Washington received assignments on three favorable committees: Education and Labor, Judiciary, and Government Operations.
Concerned that Mayor Byrne and other local machine leaders would launch a significant challenge to his re–election bid, Washington spent considerable time campaigning in Chicago during his first term. But despite his apprehension, he ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and easily won a second term in the House, garnering 97 percent of the vote in the general election.
Shortly after his victory in November 1982, Washington announced his candidacy for mayor of Chicago. Approached by several African–American groups interested in fielding a strong black candidate to oppose Byrne, Washington, who was content with his position in Congress, agreed to run only after a campaign to register voters added more than 100,000 blacks to Chicago’s rolls. Throughout his campaign in the Democratic primary against the incumbent mayor and Richard M. Daley, the son of the late former mayor, Washington used a grass–roots approach, emphasizing his anti–machine record, especially when courting African–American voters. Drastically outspent by both his opponents, Washington nonetheless stunned the nation by emerging victorious in the competitive Democratic primary, which boasted its largest turnout in 25 years—bolstered by thousands of newly registered black voters. In the general election, Washington narrowly defeated former Illinois state legislator Republican Bernard Epton to become Chicago’s first African–American mayor. Aware of the magnitude of his victory, Washington commented shortly after his election that “the whole Nation was watching and Chicago sent a profound message out of the crucible of our city’s most trying election.” On April 30, 1983, a little more than two weeks after the election, he resigned his House seat.
Washington struggled to reform the Chicago political scene, but he eventually experienced some success in weakening the power of the machine. Seven months after winning election to a second term, Washington died suddenly of a heart attack on November 25, 1987.
|Place Name||Admin Code||Country|
|African American mayors|
|Chicago Public Library|
|Representatives, U.S. Congress|