Despite the various contributions made by Black people to the city of Chicago, the Windy City has only had one Black mayor. The late Harold Washington served as Chicago’s mayor for one full term, and was set to embark on his second when he died unexpectedly while still in office.
Born April 15, 1922, Washington was raised in the Bronzeville section of the city.
A track star at the segregated DuSable High School, Washington dropped out of school, saying he didn’t find it challenging enough. First taking a job in a meat-packing district, Washington eventually went to work for the U.S. Treasury. After marrying his first wife, Nancy Finch, at 20, Washington was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and served three years.
A returning vet, at 24, Washington enrolled at Roosevelt University, earning his degree in 1949, then entering Northwestern University’s School Of Law. The only Black student in his class, Washington persevered to complete his J.D. and began practicing law, working in various legal positions in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s. His close connection to former Olympian and city alderman Ralph Metcalfe kept him close to the city’s political elite.
In 1965, Washington was elected to the state House of Representatives and served there until 1976. He gained a reputation as a champion of equal rights for Blacks and was often embroiled in tense battles with members of his party. Washington was elected to the state Senate in 1976 where he remained until 1980. In 1981, he served two years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
One of Washington’s major political achievements was the Illinois Humans Rights Act of 1980, which continued to be a hallmark of his career after his election as mayor. Washington’s first term in Chicago was a battle, as his desire for legislative reform was blocked by the City Council.
The Democratic Party seemingly did not expect Washington to best other establishment politicians in the primary, and weren’t prepared to combat the mayor’s aggressive agenda. Washington ruled mostly by veto, as the City Council sought to undermine his power and control the political narrative.
It was only in 1986 when Washington backers won a one-seat majority in the Council did his agenda get heard. Washington handily won a city primary in February 1987, which essentially made him the winner of a second term in office.
But on November 25 of that year, Washington suffered a fatal heart attack. There was speculation that Washington was poisoned but those rumors were unfounded. There was also chatter of drug use but nothing was found in Washington’s system.
In the years since his untimely death, Washington’s named adorns several buildings and institutions. The massive Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago houses much of Washington’s archived material. The Harold Washington Cultural Center was opened in Bronzeville in 2004.
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