The city unexpectedly lost Harold Washington – the first black mayor – Chicago 35 years ago today.
Tribune reporter Robert Davis noted that Washington “left an indelible mark on political history, but an uncertain future for the city it was just beginning to control.”
Washington — who pledged to serve the city in that position for 20 years — suffered a heart attack while sitting at his desk just nine months after winning re-election to a second term and with a majority of the city’s 50 aldermen who finally teamed up with him. He was pronounced dead at 1:36 PM on November 25, 1987.
Earlier this year, the city celebrated Washington’s 100th birthday. Here are some important things to 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 after it opened in 1935. American South during the Great Migration.
- He rose through the ranks of the Democratic machine and then tried to dismantle it: In the early 1950s, Washington, then a law student at Northwestern University, began working for 3rd Ward Ald. Ralph Metcalfe, a former Olympian who was later elected to Congress. Washington rose through the ranks of the Democratic machine, eventually winning election for the Illinois House in 1965, for the state Senate in 1976 and – despite a brief stint in prison in the early 1970s for failing to file a tax return – for Congress in 1980. But over time, he increasingly asserted his independence from the machine, and as then-Mayor Jane Byrne steadily lost the support of many blacks who had supported her, Washington was encouraged to run for the top job of the city. In a bang, Washington won the Democratic primary, beating not only the incumbent, but another opponent named Richard M. Daley, son of the late mayor who himself had sometimes encouraged Metcalfe to dump Washington. In the general election, Washington then defeated Republican Bernie Epton, despite Epton’s support from many senior Democrats, some of whom sought to stir racial fears in white neighborhoods over the prospects of a black mayor. In his “belligerent” inaugural address, the new mayor proclaimed “the death knell of the democratic machine,” the Tribune wrote at the time.
- One of his main rivals remains on the city council: Washington’s first years in office were marked by the racially heated “Council Wars” with old-line opponents who, embittered by his victory, formed a white majority on the city council behind Ald. Ed Vrdolyak to thwart the mayor’s agenda. This led to lawsuits and an ‘alternative’ city budget. And in September 1983, “one of the most tumultuous council meetings in years, Vrdolyak questions Washington’s manhood and the mayor threatens to punch him in the mouth,” the Tribune reported two years later. Then, the Tribune also noted, Vrdolyak lowered his profile in the Council Wars, “by his ally, Ald. Edward Burke, take the public lead in challenging the mayor.” For example, in 1984, Burke attempted to remove Washington from office when he failed to file an ethics form on time. Burke is now the longest-serving alderman on the council. But in 2019, shortly after serving 50 years on the council, he was charged with attempted racketeering. Burke is still awaiting trial.
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— Kori Noise, visual reporter
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See highlights from the Washington to Chicago service through the eyes of Tribune photographers. View more.
Other black politicians had previously run for mayor of Chicago. Most of those previous campaigns had been quixotic, symbolic, and ultimately pointless. But in 1983 it was different. Read more.
Washington’s ushering in as Chicago’s first black mayor did not go down well with the old guard. An uprising was inevitable. Read more.
- Photo gallery: Chicago’s Council Wars pit defiant white aldermen against a reformist Washington
Washington signs an executive order ending the city’s practice of asking job and permit applicants about their U.S. citizenship status and ending cooperation between city agencies and federal immigration authorities. Read more.
- Timeline: Chicago’s 40-year history as a sanctuary city
Vintage Chicago Grandstand
The Vintage Tribune Newsletter is a deep dive into the archives of the Chicago Tribune with photos and stories about the people, places and events that define the city’s past, present and future.
Washington narrowly defeated former mayor Jane Byrne in the primary before becoming Chicago’s first mayor in a decade to win re-election. And he now had more supporters on the Chicago City Council – 27 of the 50 seats.
“We’re not celebrating the victory of one candidate tonight, but a mandate for a movement,” he told a cheering crowd at Navy Pier. Read more.
When a mourner in Daley Plaza heard of Washington’s death, he exclaimed, “He wasn’t done yet.” In the days that followed, the city came together as it never really had when he was alive. Read more.
To many Chicagoans, the election of a black mayor still seemed as miraculous the day Washington died—November 25, 1987—as it did the night the votes were tallied on April 12, 1983. Read more.
- Paul Sullivan: My 40th anniversary of the Chicago Tribune stirs memories of some of the most interesting figures I’ve met along the way, from Mike Royko to Carlos Zambrano to Washington
There have been 56 mayors in the city’s long and politically colorful history, corrupt and admirable for various reasons. Few of them, Kogan argues, were as fascinating or important as Washington, the city’s 51st mayor. Read more.
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