Tuesday, April 15 would have been Mayor Harold Washington’s 86th birthday. It has been 20 years since Washington’s death on Nov. 25, 1987. It is 25 years since he became Chicago’s first black mayor on April 12, 1983.
Washington grew up in the Bronzeville neighborhood, where his father, Roy, a lawyer, was one of the first black precinct captains in the City of Chicago. Washington attended DuSable High School, Roosevelt College and Northwestern University School of Law.
An outstanding athlete, in the 1939 citywide track meet, he placed first in the 110-meter high hurdles and second in the 220-meter low hurdles. After his father helped him get a job with the U.S. Treasury, he married at age 19. His wife, Dorothy, was only 17, and the marriage did not last.
He was drafted in 1942 and served in a segregated unit of the Air Force Engineers in the Philippines. Florence Hamlish Levinsohn, in a biography of Washington, surmised that “the three years Washington spent in the South Pacific fighting for democracy while experiencing racial prejudice and discrimination helped shape [his] views on racial justice in the mayoral run to come.”
Although his first term was riddled with “council wars,” Washington really seemed to relish his job. Often he would tell reporters that people from other countries were not longer asking about Al Capone but asking instead, “How’s Harold?”
On Nov. 25, 1987, around 11 a.m., paramedics were called to City Hall by press secretary Alton Miller, where they were meeting when Washington suddenly slumped over his desk. He was pronounced dead at 1:36 at Northwestern Hospital. The entire city was in shock. Washington had been re-elected in April of that year, defeating council foe Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, who ran on the “Solidarity Party.”
A wake was held in the lobby of City Hall, Nov. 27-29, and on Nov. 30, his funeral was officiated by Rev. B. Herbert Martin at Christ Universal Temple, 119th Street & Ashland Avenue. Washington is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side. (Sources: Florence Hamlish Levinsohn: Harold Washington: A Political Biography)