Lionel J. Washington Sr., 103, was a devoted family man full of dignity

Lionel J. Washington Sr. passed away peacefully as the world continued to obsess over Will Smith’s slap. The Oscar-winning actor could learn a thing or two from my treasured Uncle Lionel.

SHARE Lionel J. Washington Sr., 103, was a devoted family man full of dignity
Lionel J. Washington Sr.

Lionel J. Washington Sr.


Last Monday morning, as the world was obsessing over Will Smith’s infamous and undignified Academy Awards slap, the world lost a man of dignity.

Lionel J. Washington Sr. passed away peacefully that morning, just two weeks after celebrating his 103rd birthday on Zoom with dozens of adoring family and friends.

Will Smith could learn a thing or two from my treasured Uncle Lionel.

We were doubly related, making him even more precious. Lionel and my father were brothers. Lionel’s wife and my mother were first cousins.

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To the end, he was a vital presence, always with a brilliant smile and a sweet quip. Like most of us Washingtons, he was a fast talker. But I hung on his every word.

He was born in March of 1919, in Chicago’s Bronzeville, on the heels of the 1918 flu pandemic. He survived.

Last March, he survived another pandemic — to celebrate his 102nd birthday after recovering from COVID-19 and a 10-day hospital stay.

Lionel was the oldest of eight children. When his mother died in childbirth, he helped care for his siblings, while keeping up with his studies at Wendell Phillips High School.

There, he was a classmate of Nat King Cole. They played together in a band, Nat at the piano, Lionel on the saxophone.

He “had an opportunity to travel with Nat King Cole’s band, but he declined because he was married and had a family by then,” his daughter, Cheryl Butler, said.

In 1940, he married Celestine Harden, in a union that lasted just short of 75 years. They raised eight children — seven daughters and one son. Aunt Celly passed away in 2014.

The Washingtons started their family in a cramped apartment at 3453 S. Prairie Ave. in a tight-knit community. “We all stayed close together on the same block. Everyone knew everyone else,” my mother recalls.

In World War II, Lionel served in 1944 and 1945. He was uber-proud of being “there” when the U.S. flag was raised at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Lionel J. Washington Sr.

Lionel J. Washington Sr. while serving in the U.S. Army.


Like so many Black men of achievement, he worked two or three jobs at a time. In the early days, delivering newspapers, working a shoeshine stand and serving as a restaurant attendant at the old Morrison Hotel downtown. There, he met famous performers like Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. “He even got to dance with her,” Cheryl recalls. Ella was charmed, I’m sure.

The family later moved to a one-story house in Evanston, where my fondest childhood memories reside. I relished our car trips up from the South Side to visit and play with my cousins.

Going to “Uncle Lionel’s and Aunt Celly’s,” meant a packed place overflowing with family, neighbors, laughter, music and endless good eats.

When it was time to go home, I cried.

Lionel spent most of his working years driving a truck that ferried supplies to Commonwealth Edison emergency repair workers. He helped keep the lights on.

He retired and abandoned Chicago’s freeze and snow for suburban Atlanta, where for another 40 years, he and Celestine continued their hosting duties for droves of visiting friends and family.

He was an avid, lifelong bowler but never bowled alone. He was the star of his league, taking to the lanes until he was 99.

But family always came first. It showed. Uncle Lionel and Aunt Celly produced eight children, 19 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great grandchildren. A great-great-great-grandchild is on the way.

Will Smith, instead of slapping someone in the name of family, should try emulating the sacrifice, wisdom and humility of Lionel J. Washington Sr. That’s a real family man.

Laura Washington is a political analyst for ABC 7. Follow her on Twitter @MediaDervish

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