As has been the tradition since the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St., first opened its doors in 1991, an annual tribute to the building’s namesake was held on Sunday, April 15.
The usually understated commemoration was presented with added fanfare as Harold Washington archivists, former constituents and fellow politicians such as 7th District Cong. Danny K. Davis and Michigan Cong. John Conyers Jr. gathered in the library’s ninth floor winter garden to speak about their colleague.
“We celebrate Mayor Washington’s accomplishments every year; however, this year was different because it represents both the year he would have turned 85 and the 20th anniversary of his passing,” said Dolores Woods, co-chair of the Harold Washington Archival Committee. “We spared no expense this year in paying tribute.”
True to that assertion, the hall was set-up press conference-style with folding chairs lined in front of the podium, two tables of catered food, and jazz music performed live, courtesy of a Chicago-based trio from the Walter Cartwright Band.
A crowd of over 100 participants, made up primarily of those old enough to remember Washington’s historic mayoral run 24 years ago. However, not all those in attendance were over 20 as the Harold Washington Elementary School Choir performed as well.
“I can remember the massive crowds lined for blocks around Washington’s campaign headquarters where the chants grew to a fever pitch: ‘We want Harold, we want Harold,'” said Oba William King, manager for JUSTUSarts Educational Programs. “After several minutes, he finally emerged from his office and declared, with that charismatic smile, ‘You want Harold? You got Harold.'”
King talked in depth about Washington’s humble beginnings as the fourth born to parents Roy and Bertha Washington on April 15, 1922 on Chicago’s South Side.
“Washington attended Du Sable High School, then studied at Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University), and graduated in 1949. He then attended Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, graduating in 1952,” said King. “However, it was in 1954 that he entered the political arena as corporation counsel for the 3rd Ward Democratic organization. He organized the Young Democrats, which became a very influential organization for minorities. In 1964, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. During his time as a legislator, he sponsored many anti-discrimination bills and was instrumental in having Martin Luther King’s birthday recognized as a holiday in Illinois.”
It was his historic mayoral run in 1983, though, that solidified his legacy-not simply because he became the first African-American mayor of Chicago, but because of the enormous confidence he showed in himself and his potential constituents in a race against the incumbent, Jane Byrne, and fellow challenger Richard M. Daley.
“If you’ll remember, it was a close race,” said Cong. Conyers. “And many believed that Byrne would be able to pull it out as the incumbent. However, Harold was as confident as ever, knowing that the mood signified this election was destined to be a historic one. When I spoke to him about the race, he said imply, ‘I just feel this is the time. I just feel it.'”
“Washington’s greatest strength was his ability to get individuals of different races, ages and political affiliations to work together under a shared goal of making the city better,” said Conyers.
“Getting blacks and whites and Jew and gentile and Democrat and Republican to unify and work together is not always easy, yet his personality and vaunted oratorical gifts made this possible.”