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This week in history: Mayor Washington ‘left his last crowd smiling’

Mayor Harold Washington suffered a heart attack and died in his City Hall office on Nov. 25, 1987. In his column, Mark Brown remembered Washington’s last public appearance.

Michelle V. Agins/Chicago Sun-Times
In this 1987 photo, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington scoots through his office at City Hall. The city’s first African American mayor died Nov. 25, 1987.
Chicago Mayor Harold Washington scoots through his office at City Hall.

As reported Nov. 26, 1987 in the Chicago Sun-Times:

Mayor Harold Washington’s death shocked Chicagoans and left many behind grieving his loss and his legacy. The city’s first African American mayor broke many barriers, despite plenty of opposition from a number of (mostly white) aldermen.

The Sun-Times sent Mark Brown to cover what would be Washington’s last public appearance and remembered it as a “boasting, wisecracking happening that left everybody smiling.”

Washington’s last appearance took him to the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Kenwood where he and other developers would break ground on a “$6 million, 70-unit town house development at 46th Place and Woodlawn, the first new housing construction in the neighborhood in decades,” Brown wrote.

The development was a testament to Washington’s campaign to build a better Chicago for everyone. The mayor even bragged to an aide that he was able to attract “federal grants to build low-income housing.”

A slight drizzle forced everyone inside, but the weather “hadn’t dampened the mayor’s spirits,” Brown noted. A state senator friend in attendance said Washington was “in good spirits, healthy, robust. He was very happy about what was being done there and it showed.”

After making a speech, Washington put on his white hardhat and strolled outside to turn over a few shovelfuls of dirt for photographers, Brown’s report said.

The whole event took about a half hour, Brown wrote. As he headed out the door, Washington kissed the cheek of Phyllis Bratton, a KOCO employee.

“Things happen like that, I guess,” Bratton told Brown as she mourned Washington’s death with her co-workers at KOCO headquarters. “It really shook me up. I feel close to the mayor. He was looking fine.”