Harold Washington College celebrates life and legacy of namesake

More than 50 people gathered at Harold Washington College on Wednesday morning to remember the city’s first Black mayor, who would have turned 100 this month.

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Asif Wilson, left, and “Punch 9” producer, Raymond Lambert, right, answer questions during a commemoration and celebration of Harold Washington’s 100th birthday at the Harold Washington College.

Asif Wilson, left, and “Punch 9” producer, Raymond Lambert, right, answer questions during a commemoration and celebration of Harold Washington’s 100th birthday at the Harold Washington College.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

When Vaneika Martin was 4 years old, she met Harold Washington. It was before his historical election as the city’s first Black mayor, and he was on the campaign trail. 

He showed up to her father’s grocery store — the first Black-owned grocery store in Lithuanian Plaza — wearing a long black trench coat. 

“Washington pulled up, and I thought he was an uncle,” said Martin, now head of the Biology Department at Harold Washington College. “I felt like this man was part of our family. He came and picked me up and … spoke to our community.”

Martin was one of more than 50 people gathered at Harold Washington College on Wednesday morning to celebrate Washington’s legacy. 

Washington, whose centennial birthday was Friday, was elected in 1983 and served until his death four years later. 

“Mayor Washington lived a life committed to social justice, inclusion and unity,” said Daniel Lopez, the college’s president. “His work changed the lives of many Chicagoans across ethnicity, nationality, race, gender and sexual orientation.”

Wednesday’s gathering at 30 E. Lake St. featured a Q&A with Washington historians, including Raymond Lambert, producer of the documentary “Punch 9 for Harold Washington.” Attendees shared memories of Washington and a musical performance by two Harold Washington College students.

Student members from Harold Washington College’s Jazz Pop Ensemble performed at the college’s celebration honoring Washington’s 100th birthday and life achievements.

Student members from Harold Washington College’s Jazz Pop Ensemble performed at the college’s celebration honoring Washington’s 100th birthday and life achievements.

Cheyanne M. Daniels/Sun-Times

One man shared his memory of Washington joining his family for Sunday dinners; another shared the time he met Washington and being “mesmerized” by his presence; one even shared what it was like in City Hall the day of Washington’s death. 

Much of the celebration centered around historian and professor Asif Wilson’s lesson on Washington’s life and campaign. 

“I never met Harold Washington — but my mom will tell you a different story,” Wilson said. “She would say, ‘Boy, we was out in the street organizing for Harold Washington when you were in my belly, you met Harold Washington!’”

Wilson’s lecture included short clips from “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” a documentary on Washington’s campaign and its legacy. Wilson’s discussion encouraged self-reflection and self-determination to create a better future. 

“I believe deeply in the values that Harold Washington embodied, in the ways that he led, the ways that he interacted with people, the ways in which he reflected and engaged in a transformation of the world we live in today,” said Wilson. “Harold was an individual that was very creative and very explicit in building with people.”

Asif Wilson speaks about the life and legacy of Harold Washington during a commemoration and celebration of Harold Washington’s 100th birthday at the Harold Washington College.

Asif Wilson speaks about the life and legacy of Harold Washington during a commemoration and celebration of Harold Washington’s 100th birthday at the Harold Washington College.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The college’s celebrations continue later this week. On Friday, the college will host a Harold Washington Life and Legacy bus tour with Shermann “Dilla” Thomas, a historian who has gained social media fame for his TikTok lessons about Chicago.  

Tours will run at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Registration is required and can be made through Eventbrite. Availability is on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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