Harold Washington

Did You Know Chicago’s First African-American Mayor Was Born on This Day?

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This Day In History: April 15th

Harold Washington utilized his family ties and upbringing to embark on an unprecedented political career during 1960-1980. He helped to change the political landscape when he was elected to serve as the first African-American Mayor of Chicago, Illinois. 

Washington was born on April 15, 1922, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Roy Lee Washington, was a minister and lawyer with connections to the Democrat party that trace back to his role as a precinct captain on the city’s South Side. The elder Washington’s connection to influential black Democrats in Chicago provided his son with many political contacts. He would often attend political rallies and meetings with his father, and observe future politicians such as Arthur Mitchell and Ralph Metcalfe.

Despite having the political skills needed, Washington worked odd jobs before taking an interest in athletics and competing as an amateur boxer. However, he was drafted into the military in 1942 and served with the U.S. Air Force Engineers until 1946. After returning home, he pursued higher education and earned a B.A. in political science in 1949. He also graduated from Northwestern University’s School of Law in 1952 and passed the bar in 1953.

The following year, he began working as an assistant city prosecutor and took over the role of precinct captain to replace his father. In 1965, Washington decided to strengthen his political reputation by serving in the Illinois state house of representatives until 1976, the Illinois state senate from 1976 to 1980, and the U.S. Congress from 1981 to 1983. His first committee assignments were education and labor, judiciary, and government operations

After acquiring years of political experience, Washington set his mind on the Mayor’s Office. In the general election, Washington won against former Illinois state legislator Republican Bernard Epton to become Chicago’s first African–American mayor. Much of his platform urged for a weakening of the political machine and political reform in Chicago. Washington spoke out against proposals that would cut spending on social programs and disenfranchise his constituents. 

When it came time for reelection in 1987, Washington managed to defeat his opponent and secured his second term as Mayor. However, Harold Washington died seven months into his second term on November 25, 1987.

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