Remembering Harold Washington
He was our hero, our role model, a man of the people. His speech was elegant, intellectually savvy and yet his connection to the ordinary working man was magnetic. His voice was boisterous yet inviting.
Harold Washington was the entire package of hope before it was a tagline for a presidential campaign. Hope wasn’t merely a word—it was a way of life for him. Where he went, others wanted to follow, and many often did. Washington was the political rock star of our time. Grown men in his presence felt a couple of inches taller, women were turned on by his charm, and Black children aspired to be him one day.
As people remember the first elected Black mayor of Chicago, it was 30 years ago on November 25, 1987, when the tragic news of his passing rang throughout Chicago.
Just as the deaths of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. and Malcolm X—the news of Washington’s death were etched in the memories of Chicagoans like it was yesterday. For the first time, there was a mayor in office who didn’t carry a surname that traced back to the 11th and 19th wards. He brought together various groups from different cultures and backgrounds. His vocabulary was unrivaled, and his political portfolio was the same. An alumnus of DuSable High School, he served as a precinct captain as did his father before him in the 3rd Ward. After being honorably discharged from the military, he went on to attend Roosevelt College (Roosevelt University) and continued to break through the racial barriers of attaining his law degree from Northwestern University of Law.
His political star rose, serving in the Illinois General Assembly as a state representative (1965-1977), a state senator (1977-1981) and in the U.S. Congress (1981-1983).
Washington would be elected as the 51st Chicago mayor and the first African American to hold the office. He would achieve tremendous strides to open opportunities from beautifying the city, supporting outdoor music and neighborhood festivals, redistricting the aldermanic wards to allow Black and Hispanic representation as well as laying out a plan to bring more economic development to the city.
He was re-elected for a second term in 1987 and looked forward to carrying out his plans to build a central library location in the South Loop as well other great plans in the works. Washington would suffer a fatal heart attack at his desk on the 5th Floor of City Hall.
To listen to the personal stories of Washington’s reign from the people who today, serve in some of the most influential roles in government and the private sector is to envision some far away land. A land where neighborhood schools weren’t wiped out, where the demise of public housing displaced thousands of low-income families, or property taxes aren’t’ raised almost every year. An era when Black and Latino communities didn’t feel overlooked by developers and increased gentrification—or leaders of color afraid to challenge the status quo.
So, the next time you walk or drive down Washington Blvd., don’t think of our country’s first U.S. President and former slave owner—think of our city’s first Black mayor and political visionary. A man whose legacy is the blueprint for inclusion for all and under-representation for none.