Saturday, February 2, 2019

Harold Lee Washington Chicago's first Black mayor in 1983, passing while in office on November 25, 1987.

Harold Lee Washington was born on April 15, 1922, in Chicago. He grew up in the city, spending his career trying to better Chicago. His father was a police officer and a lawyer, and his mother was a singer. Washington attended Chicago public schools. He attended DuSable High School from 1936 to 1939 but left high school before earning his diploma.
In 1942 he went into the military to serve during World War II. He served in the 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion, rising to the rank of first sergeant. The 1887th received the Meritorious Service Unit Award for building a bomber landing strip on the Pacific Island of Angaur in only 20 days. Washington received the American Campaign Medal, among other honors. He was honorably discharged in 1946.

After the war, Washington received a G.E.D. diploma in 1946, awarded after military service, and then 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, completed his law degree in 1952, was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1953 and commenced practice in Chicago.
Washington was the assistant city prosecutor of Chicago from 1954 to 1958, then served as an arbitrator for the Illinois Industrial Commission from 1960 to 1964.

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.

Washington ran into one serious legal problem during his time in the legislature. He was convicted of tax evasion for not filing 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 serving from 1981 to 1983.
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 Republican opponent Bernard Epton. Epton used a slogan—"Before It's Too Late"—that many read to be a 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 wrangled with a block of city aldermans 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 aldermans 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. 
Harold Lee Washington is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery at 1035 E. 67th St., Chicago.
The Harold Washington Library Center.
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.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


While street signs were likely removed and not immediately replaced during Harold Washington's time as mayor, it's important to understand this in the larger context of budgetary issues and a pre-existing problem. It would be incorrect to attribute this specifically as a policy he enacted.

Mayor Washington did not initiate the removal of street signs. The removal of street signs had been an ongoing issue in Chicago before Washington became mayor. Some reasons for this included theft and vandalism. Street signs were removed and often not immediately replaced during his administration, but this was due to inherited budget issues rather than a policy he created. Washington did not favor this practice and actively sought to improve city infrastructure.

As far as Mayor Washington's budget, he faced fierce opposition within the Chicago City Council from a bloc known as the "Vrdolyak 29." This group of predominantly white aldermen consistently obstructed his legislative initiatives and proposals, perhaps a racist statement. Mayor Washington inherited a significant budget deficit from the previous administration. This added further strain to the city's already troubled finances. During the Reagan era, major federal funding sources for cities were cut, which left Chicago with substantial financial shortfalls.

Chicago faced increasing costs in crucial areas such as public safety, health services, and infrastructure. Balancing these budgetary pressures, especially with limited revenue, proved to be a major challenge. While balancing the budget was a priority, Washington also pushed for progressive, equitable city development. Finding a way to fund those social justice goals while addressing financial limitations was a difficult juggling act. To foster public understanding and involvement, Mayor Washington pushed for greater budgetary transparency. The goal was to open up the budgeting process to more public scrutiny, making the flow of public funds more visible to constituents.

Despite the numerous budgetary challenges, a few accomplishments stand out as part of Harold Washington's legacy:
  • He balanced the city's budget despite the challenges during his term.
  • He improved the city's credit rating, demonstrating improved fiscal responsibility.
  • Despite financial concerns, he was still committed to programs benefiting minority communities and underrepresented neighborhoods.

1 comment:

The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ is RATED PG-13. Please comment accordingly. Advertisements, spammers and scammers will be removed.