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Vintage Chicago Tribune: Remembering Mayor Harold Washington

The city unexpectedly lost Harold Washington — its first Black mayor — 35 years ago today, Chicago.

Tribune reporter Robert Davis noted Washington left “an indelible imprint on political history but an uncertain future for the city he had just begun to control.”

Washington — who vowed to serve the city in that position for 20 years — was stricken by a heart attack while sitting at his desk just nine months after winning reelection to a second term and with a majority of the city’s 50 aldermen finally working with him. He was pronounced dead at 1:36 p.m. on Nov. 25, 1987.

Earlier this year, the city marked the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth. Here are some key 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 among the first graduates of DuSable High School after it opened in 1935, catering primarily to Blacks whose families or ancestors had come to Chicago from the American South during the Great Migration.
  • He rose through the Democratic machine’s ranks — then aimed to dismantle it: In the early 1950s, Washington, then a law student at Northwestern University, started working for 3rd Ward Ald. Ralph Metcalfe, a former Olympian who was later elected to Congress. Washington rose through the Democratic machine ranks, eventually winning election to the Illinois House in 1965, to the state Senate in 1976 and — despite a short stint in jail in the early 1970s for failing to file a tax return — to Congress in 1980. But along the way, he increasingly asserted his independence against the machine and, as then-Mayor Jane Byrne steadily lost the support of many Blacks who’d backed her, Washington was encouraged to run for the city’s top job. In a stunner, Washington won the Democratic primary, not only beating the incumbent but another opponent by the name of Richard M. Daley, son of the late mayor who himself had at times encouraged Metcalfe to dump Washington. In the general election, Washington went on to defeat Republican Bernie Epton, despite Epton’s support from many high-ranking Democrats, some of whom tried to stoke racist fears in white neighborhoods about the prospects of a Black mayor. In his “combative” inaugural address, the new mayor “proclaim(ed) 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 early years in office were marked by the racially heated “Council Wars” with old-line opponents who, embittered by his victory, formed a white majority at the City Council behind Ald. Ed Vrdolyak to thwart the mayor’s agenda. This led to court battles 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. After that, the Tribune also noted, Vrdolyak lowered his profile in the Council Wars, “letting his ally, Ald. Edward Burke, take the public lead in challenging the mayor.” In 1984, for example, 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 marking 50 years on the council, he was charged with attempted extortion. Burke is still awaiting trial.

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Thanks for reading!

— Kori Rumore, visual reporter

Chicago history | More newsletters | Puzzles & Games | Today’s eNewspaper edition

Mayor Harold Washington talks to the mayor of Anaheim, California about the upcoming NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Bears' Refrigerette's give the mayor support at his office on Jan. 10, 1986.

See highlights from Washington’s service to Chicago through the eyes of Tribune photographers. See more.

Harold Washington takes the oath of office as mayor of Chicago, administered by Circuit Judge Charles Freeman, on April 29, 1983. At right are Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, outgoing mayor Jane Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen.

Other black politicians had run for the office of Chicago mayor before. Most of those past campaigns had been quixotic, symbolic, and, in the end, futile. But things were different in 1983. Read more.

Angry supporters of Mayor Harold Washington jeer the council proceedings after Ald. Ed Vrdolyak seized control of the podium on May 2, 1983. Vrdolyak had taken control of the meeting after Mayor Washington left, and had himself elected vice chairman of the committee.

The ushering in of Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor did not sit well with the old guard. A revolt was inevitable. Read more.

  • Photo gallery: Chicago’s Council Wars pitted defiant white aldermen against a reform-minded Washington
Mayor Harold Washington, center, raises his hand as he talks about signing an executive order to assure that all residents of Chicago, regardless of nationality or citizenship, shall have fair and equal access to municipal benefits, opportunities and services on March 7, 1985. With Washington is his Latino Advisory Commission.

Washington signs an executive order ending the city’s practice of asking job and license applicants about their U.S. citizenship and halting cooperation by city agencies with federal immigration authorities. Read more.

  • Timeline: Chicago’s 40-year history as a sanctuary city
Mayor Harold Washington is joined by an enthusiastic crowd during a visit to the Robert Taylor Homes in 1987.
Vintage Chicago Tribune

Vintage Chicago Tribune


The Vintage Tribune newsletter is a deep dive into the Chicago Tribune’s archives featuring photos and stories about the people, places and events that shape the city’s past, present and future.

Washington narrowly defeated former mayor Jane Byrne in the primary before becoming the first Chicago mayor in a dozen years to win reelection. And he now had more supporters on Chicago’s City Council — 27 out of 50 seats.

“We celebrate tonight not the victory of one candidate, but a mandate for a movement,” he told a jubilant crowd at Navy Pier. Read more.

Aldermen Bobby Rush, from left, Anna Langford, Eugene Sawyer, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ald. Timothy Evans, Ald. Danny Davis and U.S. Rep. Gus Savage pay their last respects to Mayor Harold Washington during his lying-in-state at City Hall in Chicago on Nov. 27, 1987.

On hearing of Washington’s death, one mourner in Daley Plaza cried, “He wasn’t finished.” In the days that followed, the city came together as it never really had when he was alive. Read more.

Students salute the hearse bearing Mayor Harold Washington's casket as the cortege passes Simeon Vocational High School on Nov. 30, 1987. South Side residents flooded out of their homes to stand in the rain and pay final respects to the late mayor as the hearse passed by.

To many Chicagoans, the election of a black mayor still seemed as miraculous on the day Washington died — Nov. 25, 1987 — as it had on the night when the ballots were counted on April 12, 1983. Read more.

  • Paul Sullivan: My 40-year Chicago Tribune anniversary rekindles memories of some of the most interesting figures I’ve met along the way, from Mike Royko to Carlos Zambrano to Washington
Harold Washington greets supporters while campaigning in the Loop on Feb. 27, 1983, only days after winning the Democratic nomination for mayor. Note the Punch 9 poster in the background.

There have been, in the city’s long and politically colorful history, 56 mayors, drawn to the job for various reasons, venal and admirable. Few of them, Kogan argues, were as fascinating or important as Washington, the city’s 51st mayor. Read more.

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Have an idea for Vintage Chicago Tribune? Share it with Ron Grossman and Marianne Mather at [email protected] and [email protected].

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