Celebration of Harold Washington’s legacy marks his historic election

Chicago’s first Black mayor, who died at his desk in 1987, would have turned 100 on Friday.

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Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy Evans, left, chats with U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, during a centennial celebration for the life of Harold Washington at Harold Washington Library on Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy Evans, left, chats with U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, during a centennial celebration for the life of Harold Washington at Harold Washington Library on Tuesday, April 12, 2022.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

On the anniversary of Harold Washington’s historic election as Chicago’s first Black mayor, the city’s political dignitaries gathered to celebrate the legacy of that mayor.

Washington’s election on April 12, 1983, was national news and a touchstone for a generation of Chicago politicians, many of whom were on hand at an anniversary celebration at Washington’s namesake library branch in South Loop. The event was billed as a centennial celebration ahead of what would have been Washington’s 100th birthday, which falls on Friday.

In her keynote address, Mayor Lori Lightfoot hailed Washington’s legacy with a lengthy list of progressive accomplishments that opened city contracting to women and minorities, offered city services to residents regardless of immigration status, the creation of ethics rules and public records access that paved the way to further reforms. Lightfoot, who became the first Black woman and first openly LGBTQ person to win the election for mayor, drew parallels to Washington’s legacy of reform. 

At the Table with Laura Washington and Lynn Sweet
A few days after the 100th anniversary of Harold Washington’s birth, “At the Table” co-hosts Laura Washington and Lynn Sweet - with a panel who covered or worked in Washington’s City Hall - will discuss the life and legacy of Chicago’s first Black mayor. Join guests Jacky Grimshaw, Luis Gutiérrez, Peter Nolan and Gary Rivlin on April 21 at 6:30 p.m. CT.

“Harold Washington, by boldly challenging the status quo and by demanding equity … our great mayor truly put Chicago on a path to being a great, global city,” Lightfoot said.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans recalled his time as Washington’s City Council floor leader during the racially polarized “Council Wars” that followed Washington’s victory over the white political establishment. Former U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez recalled joining the coalition of aldermen that eventually gave Washington a governing majority late in Washington’s first term. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush — who spent 30 years representing Washington’s former congressional district — lauded Washington as the city’s greatest mayor. 

Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who ran an underdog campaign for mayor to a historic runoff loss with former mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015, lauded Washington for forging a multiracial coalition. 

“He showed us how you build a progressive coalition through good values and bringing people together,” Garcia said.

Next Monday has been designated Harold Washington Day. Harold Washington College will preview the documentary “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” April 20. Roosevelt University, Washington’s alma mater, has announced a scholarship drive — Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who took a turn at the podium Tuesday, pledged $10,000 to the fund.

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Among the hundreds gathered at the library were smaller players in Washington’s administration. Former Chicago Police Officer Frank Lee headed up Washington’s security detail. Lee had volunteered to provide security for Washington when the then-congressman first became a candidate, a duty that became more hazardous as Washington climbed in the polls during the racially charged campaign.

Threats never subsided, even as Washington won a second term in 1987. 

“Harold Washington got more threats against him than Ronald Reagan,” Lee recalled. “But Harold never got shot.”

Lee was at Washington’s side in November 1987 — when the mayor collapsed at his desk during a meeting with staff — and gave Washington mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before taking command of the mayor’s trip to the hospital. Washington died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

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His wife Joanne also did hair. Their sons swept up. Their daughter did makeup. Many relatives and friends worked there during the 25 years the family operated the business.