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Black History Spotlight: Harold Washington

Feb 11, 2021 12:46:15 PM

During this Black History Month, we are taking time to honor the contributions of Black civic leaders. These spectacular public servants have shaped the American experience in remarkable ways and sharing their stories is important to us at Azavar.

Chicago's First Black Mayor
Harold Washington

Harold Washington was Chicago’s 51st mayor, but in 1983, became its first Black mayor. 

By Paul Comstock from New Paltz, NY, U.S. of A. - Harold Washington, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73256282

Born and raised in Chicago to a minister father, Washington served in World War II, then came home to pursue higher education at Roosevelt College, followed by Northwestern University Law School, where he attained his law degree. Eager to make a name for himself in Chicago's rough-and-tumble political ranks, Washington worked doggedly to build allies while championing the concerns of Black residents, and other underserved communities.  

In 1965, Washington was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives During his ten years in office, he focused on passing legislation aimed at eliminating housing and employment discrimination. Washington then went on to the Illinois State Senate and then the United States Congress.

But in 1983, Chicago came calling once again. He returned home to mount a challenge to the city's first female mayor, Jane Byrne. In a hotly contested three-way race between Byrne and future major Richard M. Daley split largely along racial, ethnic, and geographic lines, Washington came away with just enough votes to take the seat.

His term was marked by significant strife as he worked against deep-seated racism from Chicago’s entrenched power structure. But, here again, Washington's ability to make allies and form coalitions among disparate groups helped him achieve successes such as creating a comprehensive cultural plan for the city, redistricting that brought more minority representation to the council, and more evenly distributed investment across the city. He was re-elected by a significant margin, proving that Chicago residents supported his more inclusive, democratic style. Unfortunately, Washington suffered a massive heart attack in his City Hall office and died in late 1987. 

He is remembered across Chicago today as one of the city's most beloved mayors, both for what he represented and what he accomplished. His name graces the large downtown library he started work on, as well as a City College campus, various parks, and cultural institutions. A TV series about Washington, based on Gary Rivlin’s book Fire on the Prairie, is currently in development.

Check back next week for our next profile of an outstanding Black civic leader you should know. And feel free to share your own.

Shylo Bisnett

Written by Shylo Bisnett

Shylo Bisnett is a Content Marketing Specialist at Azavar and Localgov. In addition to managing a career as a freelance strategic writer, she also founded and chaired a local not-for-profit organization geared toward building relationships among residents, elected officials, and non-governmental organizations.