Harold Washington was the first African-American mayor of Chicago, Illinois, serving the city from 1983 until his untimely death in 1987 from a heart attack. He was greatly admired among the citizens of Chicago for introducing many measures that advocated the social and economic rights of minorities.
Born in Chicago on April 15th, 1922, Harold Washington soon left the city to grow up in Milwaukee for the first ten years of his life. After those ten years were up the future Mayor moved back to the South Side of Chicago where he attended school until he dropped out his junior year in high school. He was then drafted into the Army where he obtained a high school equivalency degree. While in the Army he rose to the rant of first sergeant before being discharged on January 20, 1946.
Once Washington returned to Chicago from the war he went right back to school. First he went to Roosevelt University for three years where he graduated with a degree in political science in 1949. Right after graduating from Roosevelt he went to Northwestern University where he gained his law degree in 1953.
It was also in 1953 that Harold Washington began his political career, mainly due to his fathers death; his father was the Democratic Party precinct captain, so Harold took over that position once his father had passed on.
After brief rounds of being a city attorney and a state labor arbitrator, Mr. Washington dipped himself into larger scale politics. He served as an Illinois State Representative from 1965 through 1976 and then as a Senator from ’76 until ’80. But between his terms as a State Representative and a Senator he took his first shot at becoming Mayor of Chicago. Needless to say he didn’t win the election: he only got 11% of the vote.
The second time around with his bout for Chicago Mayor he did a whole lot better. He defeated Mayor Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary and then moved on to win the whole election against Republican Bernard Epton, becoming the 42nd mayor of Chicago.
Mayor Washington’s term, although extremely productive and progressive, sadly didn’t live up to it’s full potential. This is mainly due to the intense opposition of Ed Vrdolyak, the man who controlled a majority of the city council during Washingtons term. Vrdolyak took ever chance he could to vote against Washington, but soon the city was redistricted in ’85 and more power was placed into the Mayors hands.
Even though he was held back in many respects Harold Washington still did all he could do to encourage the people of Chicago into becoming more unified city. He encouraged neighborhood festivals and he opened the city’s budget process for public input and participation. But not too much official legislation was passed because of Vrdolyak’s bitter opposition.
Harold Washington won reelection in 1987 but sadly died before this second term could begin.
Many people accused the unmarried Harold Washington of being a homosexual. Many people also believed that he was a cross-dresser; a rumor had started that when the Mayor had died he was wearing a garter-belt and stockings underneath his suit. These two things were immortalized in a painting that was briefly hung in Chicago's Art Institute.
This painting, posted about two weeks after the mans death, depicted him wearing a bra, panties, garter-belt and stockings. This painting infuriated the African-American community to the point that they almost rioted in protest. The Institute agreed to remove the painting, however, before things escalated any further.
When the painting was returned it was found to have been slashed five times with a knife, showing that some people still had ill-will against an honest and great man.