Black History Is American History: Tribute To Chicago’s Harold Washington

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Mayor Harold Washington

[Tribute: Harold Washington]

Black history is and will always be American history – and the work we do every day honors and builds upon the work of those who have toiled, fought and even died so that our nation can realize “truth, liberty and justice for all.”

While February is a time when our nation collectively recognizes the rich contributions of trail-blazing African Americans to our land and our way of life, it is my hope that the spotlight on Black history during this month will continue to shine year-round and become more deeply integrated into what is taught as the history of America.  The role of Blacks in America as leaders, educators, innovators, entrepreneurs, entertainers, elected officials, game-changers and beyond has left – and continues to leave – an indelible imprint on our national culture and our national story.

Each week during this month, I will dedicate my newsletter opening to a different history-maker – one of many who cleared a path for us to follow.  This week, I’m highlighting Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago, who proclaimed, “Chicago is one city.  We shall work as one people for our common good and our common goals.”

Harold Washington Biography: Harold Washington was born on April 15, 1922, in Chicago, Illinois. Washington got his start in politics in the Illinois House of Representatives, where he represented the state's 26th District from 1965 to 1976. He went on to serve in the Illinois Senate from 1977 to 1980, and then became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1981-83), representing Illinois' 1st District. In 1983, Washington became the first African-American mayor of Chicago. He was elected to a second term in 1987. Washington died while in office, on November 25, 1987, in Chicago.

Early Life and Education: Born on April 15, 1922, Harold Washington was Chicago's first African-American mayor. He grew up in the city he spent his career trying to help—Chicago. His father was a police officer and a lawyer and his mother was a singer. Washington attended the city's public schools, but he left high school before earning his diploma. In the early 1940s, he went into the military to serve during World War II.

After the war, Washington received a G.E.D. and headed off to college. He earned a bachelor's degree from Roosevelt University in 1949. Continuing his studies, Washington enrolled in law school at Northwestern University. He was the only Black man in his class and completed his law degree in 1952.

Illinois Politician: In 1965, Washington won election to the Illinois House of Representatives. He served the city's 26th District for roughly a decade, supporting legislation to advance equality. Washington also sought to make the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. a statement holiday. Not one tow the party line, he sometimes went against the wishes of his state's Democratic leadership.

During his time in the legislature, Washington ran into one serious legal problem. He was convicted of tax evasion for not filling tax returns for several years. For his crime, Washington spent 36 days in jail in 1972. He became a state senator in 1977. Three years later, Washington moved on to national politics. He won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Groundbreaking Mayor: Washington faced a difficult battle in his effort to become mayor. While he clinched the Democratic nomination away from incumbent mayor Jane Byrne, he had to deal with some questionable campaign tactics by his White Republican opponent Bernard Epton. Epton used a slogan—"Before It's Too Late"—that many read to be call for voters to prevent the first Black American from getting the city's top job. Other racially-oriented attacks were also orchestrated by Epton's supporters. On April 12, 1983, Washington made history when he won more than 50 percent of the vote to become Chicago's new mayor.

The struggle wasn't over once he won the post, however. In what is now known as the "council wars," Washington had wrangle with a block of city alderman who seemed to oppose him at nearly every turn. Still he managed to increase the number of contracts awarded to minority-owned businesses and made city government more transparent to the public. Washington, known as being a man of the people, invited his constituents to voice their opinions regarding the city's budget.

In 1987, Washington won re-election. This time around he had a sizable block of alderman behind him to help him advance his plans for the city. Unfortunately, Washington died of a heart attack not long into his second term. He collapsed at his desk in City Hall on November 25, 1987, and was declared dead at a nearby hospital that afternoon.

Washington's beloved city honored him in many ways after his passing, including renaming Loop College after him. The Harold Washington Library Center is another place that bears his name. 

Marc Morial is President

The National Urban League  



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