Harold Lee Washington was born on April 15, 1922 at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, to Roy and Bertha Washington. His father had been one of the first precinct captains in the city, a lawyer and a Methodist minister. His mother, Bertha, left a small farm near Centralia, Illinois, to seek her fortune in Chicago as a singer. She married Roy Washington soon after arriving in Chicago and the couple had three children, one named Kevin and the other named Ramon Price (from a later marriage), who was a former artist and eventually became chief curator of The DuSable Museum of African American History. Washington grew up in Bronzeville, a Chicago neighborhood that was the center of black culture for the entire Midwest in the early and middle 20th century. Washington attended DuSable High School, then a newly established racially segregated public high school, and was a member of its first graduating class. In a 1939 citywide track meet, Washington placed first in the 110 meter high hurdles event, and second in the 220 meter low hurdles event. Between his junior and senior year of high school, Washington dropped out, claiming that he no longer felt challenged by the coursework. He worked at a meat-packing plant for a time before his father helped him get a job at the U.S. Treasury branch in the city. There he met Dorothy Finch, whom he married soon after; Washington was 19 years old and Dorothy was 17 years old. Seven months later, the U.S. was drawn into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Sunday, December 7, 1941.
In 1942, Washington was drafted into the United States Army for the war effort and after basic training, sent overseas as part of a racially segregated unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps unit of Engineers. After the American invasion of the Philippines in 1944, on Leyte Island and later the main Luzon island, Washington was part of a unit building runways for bombers, protective fighter aircraft, refueling planes, and returning damaged aircraft. Eventually, Washington rose to the rank of First Sergeant in the Army Air Corps (later in the war renamed the U.S. Army Air Forces).
In the summer of 1946, Washington, aged 24 and a war veteran, enrolled at Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University). Washington joined other groups of students not permitted to enroll in other local colleges. Local estimates placed the student population of Roosevelt College at about 1/8 black and 1/2 Jewish. A full 75% of the students had enrolled because of the "nondiscriminatory progressive principles." He chaired a fund-raising drive by students, and then was named to a committee that supported citywide efforts to outlaw "restrictive covenants" in housing, the legal means by which minorities (especially blacks ("negroes") and, to a lesser extent, Jews) were prohibited from purchasing real estate in predominantly white neighborhoods of the city.
In 1948, after the college had moved to the Auditorium Building, Washington was elected the third president of Roosevelt's student council. Under his leadership, the student council successfully petitioned the college to have student representation on Roosevelt's faculty committees. At the first regional meeting of the newly founded National Student Association in the spring of 1948, Washington and nine other delegates proposed student representation on college faculties, and a "Bill of Rights" for students; both measures were roundly defeated. The next year, Washington went to the state capital at Springfield to protest Illinois legislators' coming probe of "subversives". The probe of investigation would outlaw the Communist Party and require "loyalty oaths" for teachers. He led students' opposition to the bills, although they would pass later in 1949.
During his Roosevelt College years, Washington came to be known for his stability. His friends said that he had a "remarkable ability to keep cool", reason carefully and walk a middle line. Washington intentionally avoided extremist activities, including street actions and sit-ins against racially segregated restaurants and businesses. Overall, Washington and other radical activists ended up sharing a mutual respect for each other, acknowledging both Washington's pragmatism and the activists' idealism. With the opportunities found only at Roosevelt College in the late 1940s, Washington's time at the Roosevelt College proved to be pivotal. Washington graduated in August 1949, with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree. In addition to his activities at Roosevelt, he was a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
Washington then applied and was admitted to study law at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. During this time, Washington was divorced from Dorothy Finch. By some accounts, Harold and Dorothy had simply grown apart after Washington was sent overseas during the war during the first year of his marriage. Others saw both as young and headstrong, the relationship doomed from the beginning. Another friend of Washington's deemed Harold "not the marrying kind." He would not marry again, but continued to have relationships with other women; his longtime secretary is said to have said, "If every woman Harold slept with stood at one end of City Hall, the building would sink five inches into LaSalle Street!".
At Northwestern Law School, Washington was the only black student in his class (there were six women in the class, one of them being Dawn Clark Netsch). As at Roosevelt, he entered school politics. In 1951, his last year, he was elected treasurer of the Junior Bar Association (JBA). The election was largely symbolic, however, and Washington's attempts to give the JBA more authority at Northwestern were largely unsuccessful. On campus, Washington joined the Nu Beta Epsilon fraternity, largely because he and the other minorities which constituted the fraternity were blatantly excluded from the other fraternities on campus. Overall, Washington stayed away from the activism that defined his years at Roosevelt. During the evenings and weekends, he worked to supplement his GI Bill income. He received his J.D. in 1952.
From 1951 until he was first slated for election in 1965, Washington worked in the offices of the 3rd Ward Alderman, former Olympic athlete Ralph Metcalfe. Richard J. Daley was elected party chairman in 1952. Daley replaced C.C. Wimbush, an ally of William Dawson, on the party committee with Metcalfe. Under Metcalfe, the 3rd Ward was a critical factor in Mayor Daley's 1955 mayoral election victory and ranked first in the city in the size of its Democratic plurality in 1961. While working under Metcalfe, Washington began to organize the 3rd Ward's Young Democrats (YD) organization. At YD conventions, the 3rd Ward would push for numerous resolutions in the interest of blacks. Eventually, other black YD organizations would come to the 3rd Ward headquarters for advice on how to run their own organizations. Like he had at Roosevelt College, Washington avoided radicalism and preferred to work through the party to engender change. While working with the Young Democrats, Washington met Mary Ella Smith. They dated for the next 20 years, and in 1983 Washington proposed to Smith. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Smith said that she never pressed Washington for marriage because she knew Washington's first love was politics, saying, "He was a political animal. He thrived on it, and I knew any thoughts of marriage would have to wait. I wasn't concerned about that. I just knew the day would come." In 1960, with Lemuel Bentley, Bennett Johnson, Luster Jackson and others, Washington founded the Chicago League of Negro Voters, one of the first African-American political organizations in the city. In its first election, Bentley drew 60,000 votes for city clerk. After dropping out of view after the elections, it resurfaced as the group Protest at the Polls in 1963. Washington participated in the planning process to further the goals of 3rd Ward YDs. By 1967, the independent candidates had gained traction within the black community, winning several aldermanic seats; in 1983, the League of Negro Voters were instrumental in Washington's run for mayor. By then, the YDs were losing influence in the party, as more black voters supported independent candidates.
After the state legislature failed to reapportion districts as required by the census every ten years, an at-large election was held in January 1965 to elect 177 representatives. With the Republicans and Democrats combining to slate only 118 candidates, independent voting groups seized the opportunity to slate candidates. The League of Negro Voters created a "Third Slate" of 59 candidates, announcing the slate on June 27, 1964. Shortly afterwards, Daley put together a slate including Adlai Stevenson III and Washington. The Third Slate was then thrown out by the Illinois Election Board because of "insufficient signatures" on the nominating petitions. In the election, Washington received the second-largest amount of ballots, behind Stevenson. Washington's years in the Illinois House were marked by tension with Democratic Party leadership. In 1967, he was ranked by the Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI) as the fourth-most independent legislator in the Illinois House and named Best Legislator of the Year. His defiance of the "idiot card", a sheet of paper that directed legislators' votes on every issue, attracted the attention of party leaders, who moved to remove Washington from his legislative position. Daley often told Metcalfe to dump Washington as a candidate, but Metcalfe did not want to risk losing the 3rd Ward's Young Democrats, who were mostly aligned with Washington.
Washington backed Renault Robinson, a black police officer and one of the founders of the Afro-American Patrolmen's League (AAPL). The aim of the AAPL was to fight racism directed against minority officers by the rest of the predominantly white department. Soon after the creation of the group, Robinson was written up for minor infractions, suspended, reinstated, and then placed on the graveyard shift to a single block behind central police headquarters. Robinson approached Washington to fashion a bill creating a civilian review board, consisting of both patrolmen and officers, to monitor police brutality. Both black independent and white liberal legislators refused to back the bill, afraid to challenge Daley's grip on the police force.
After Washington announced he would support the AAPL, Metcalfe refused to protect him from Daley. Washington believed he had the support of John Touhy, Speaker of the House and a former party chair. Instead, Touhy criticized Washington and then allayed Daley's anger. In exchange for the party's backing, Washington would serve on the Chicago Crime Commission, the group Daley formed to investigate the AAPL's charges. The commission promptly found the AAPL's charges "unwarranted". An angry and humiliated Washington admitted that on the commission, he felt like Daley's "showcase nigger". In 1969, Daley removed Washington's name from the slate; only by the intervention of Cecil Partee, a party loyalist, was Washington reinstated. The Democratic Party supported Jim Taylor, a former professional boxer, Streets and Sanitation worker, over Washington. With Partee and his own ward's support, Washington defeated Taylor. His years in the House of Representatives were focused on becoming an advocate for black rights. He continued work on the Fair Housing Act, and worked to strengthen the state's Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). In addition, he worked on a state Civil Rights Act, which would strengthen employment and housing provisions in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. In his first session, all of his bills were sent to committee or tabled. Like his time in Roosevelt College, Washington relied on parliamentary tactics (e.g., writing amendments guaranteed to fail in a vote) to enable him to bargain for more concessions.
Washington also passed bills honoring civil rights figures. He passed a resolution honoring Metcalfe, his mentor. He also passed a resolution honoring James J. Reeb, a Unitarian minister who was beaten to death in Selma, Alabama by a segregationist mob. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., he introduced a bill aimed at making King's birthday a state holiday; it was tabled and later vetoed. It was not until 1973 that Washington was able, with Partee's help in the Senate, to have the bill enacted and signed by the governor. In 1975, Washington was named chairman of the Judiciary Committee with the election of William A. Redmond as Speaker of the House. The same year, Partee, now President of the Senate and eligible for his pension, decided to retire from the Senate. Although Daley and Taylor declined at first, at Partee's insistence, Washington was slated for the seat and received the party's support. In 1976, Washington was elected to the Illinois Senate.
In the Illinois Senate, Washington's main focus worked to pass 1980's Illinois Human Rights Act. Legislators rewrote all of the human rights laws in the state, restricting discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, physical or mental disability, military status, sexual orientation, or unfavorable discharge from military service in connection with employment, real estate transactions, access to financial credit, and the availability of public accommodations." The bill's origins began in 1970 with the rewriting of the Illinois Constitution. The new constitution required all governmental agencies and departments to be reorganized for efficiency. Republican governor James R. Thompson reorganized low-profile departments before his re-election in 1978. In 1979, during the early stages of his second term and immediately in the aftermath of the largest vote for a gubernatorial candidate in the state's history, Thompson called for human rights reorganization. The bill would consolidate and remove some agencies, eliminating a number of political jobs. Some Democratic legislators would oppose any measure backed by Washington, Thompson and other Republican legislators.
For many years, human rights had been a campaign issue brought up and backed by Democrats. Thompson's staffers brought the bill to Washington and other black legislators before it was presented to the legislature. Washington made adjustments in anticipation of some legislators' concerns regarding the bill, before speaking for it in April 1979. On May 24, 1979, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 59 to one, with two voting present and six absent. The victory in the Senate was attributed by a Thompson staffer to Washington's "calm noncombative presentation". However, the bill stalled in the house. State Representative Susan Catania insisted on attaching an amendment to allow women guarantees in the use of credit cards. This effort was assisted by Carol Moseley Braun, a representative from Hyde Park. State Representatives Jim Taylor and Larry Bullock introduced over one hundred amendments, including the text of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, to try to stall the bill. With Catania's amendment, the bill passed the House, but the Senate refused to accept the amendment. On June 30, 1979, the legislature adjourned.
In 1980, Washington was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in Illinois's 1st congressional district. He defeated incumbent Representative Bennett Stewart in the Democratic primary. Anticipating that the Democratic Party would challenge him in his bid for re-nomination in 1982, Washington spent much of his first term campaigning for re-election, often travelling back to Chicago to campaign. Washington missed many House votes, an issue that would come up in his campaign for mayor in 1983. Washington's major congressional accomplishment involved legislation to extend the Voting Rights Act, legislation that opponents had argued was only necessary in an emergency. Others, including Congressman Henry Hyde, had submitted amendments designed to seriously weaken the power of the Voting Rights Act.
Although he had been called "crazy" for railing in the House of Representatives against deep cuts to social programs, Associated Press political reporter Mike Robinson noted that Washington worked "quietly and thoughtfully" as the time came to pass the act. During hearings in the South regarding the Voting Rights Act, Washington asked questions that shed light on tactics used to prevent African Americans from voting (among them, closing registration early, literacy tests, and gerrymandering). After the amendments were submitted on the floor, Washington spoke from prepared speeches that avoided rhetoric and addressed the issues. As a result, the amendments were defeated, and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act Extension. By the time Washington faced re-election in 1982, he had cemented his popularity in the 1st Congressional District. Jane Byrne could not find one serious candidate to run against Washington for his re-election campaign. He had collected 250,000 signatures to get on the ballot, although only 610 signatures (0.5% of the voters in the previous election) were required. With his re-election to Congress locked up, Washington turned his attention to the next Chicago mayoral election.
In the February 22, 1983, Democratic mayoral primary, more than 100,000 new voters registered to vote led by a coalition that included the Latino reformed gang Young Lords led by Jose Cha Cha Jimenez. On the North and Northwest Sides, the incumbent mayor Jane Byrne led and future mayor Richard M. Daley, son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, finished a close second. Harold Washington had massive majorities on the South and West Sides. Southwest Side voters overwhelmingly supported Daley. Washington won with 37% of the vote, versus 33% for Byrne and 30% for Daley. Although winning the Democratic primary is normally tantamount to election in heavily Democratic Chicago, after his primary victory Washington found that his Republican opponent, former state legislator Bernard Epton (earlier considered a nominal stand-in), was supported by many high-ranking Democrats and their ward organizations, including the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, Alderman Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak.
Epton's campaign referred to, among other things, Washington's conviction for failure to file income tax returns (he had paid the taxes, but had not filed a return). Washington, on the other hand, stressed reforming the Chicago patronage system and the need for a jobs program in a tight economy. In the April 12, 1983, mayoral general election, Washington defeated Epton by 3.7%, 51.7% to 48.0%, to become mayor of Chicago. Washington was sworn in as mayor on April 29, 1983, and resigned his Congressional seat the following day. During his tenure as mayor, Washington lived at the Hampton House apartments in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. He created the city's first environmental-affairs department under the management of longtime Great Lakes environmentalist Lee Botts. Washington's first term in office was characterized by conflict with the city council dubbed "Council Wars", referring to the then-recent Star Wars films and caused Chicago to be nicknamed "Beirut on the Lake". A 29-alderman City Council majority refused to enact Washington's legislation and prevented him from appointing nominees to boards and commissions. First-term challenges included city population loss, increased crime, and a massive decrease in ridership on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).
The 29, also known as the "Vrdolyak 29", were led by Alderman Ed Vrdolyak and Finance Chair Edward Burke. Parks superintendent Edmund Kelly also opposed the mayor. The three were known as "the Eddies" and were supported by the younger Daley (now State's Attorney), U.S. Congressmen Dan Rostenkowski and William Lipinski, and much of the Democratic Party. During his first city council meeting, Washington and the 21 supportive aldermen walked out of the meeting after a quorum had been established. Vrdolyak and the other 28 then chose committee chairmen and assigned aldermen to the various committees. Later lawsuits submitted by Washington and others were dismissed because it was determined that the appointments were legally made. Washington ruled by veto. The 29 lacked the 30th vote they needed to override Washington's veto; female and African American aldermen supported Washington despite pressure from the Eddies. Meanwhile, in the courts, Washington kept the pressure on to reverse the redistricting of city council wards that the city council had created during the Byrne years. During special elections in 1986, victorious Washington-backed candidates in the first round ensured at least 24 supporters in the city council. Six weeks later, when Marlene Carter and Luís Gutiérrez won run-off elections, Washington had the 25 aldermen he needed. His vote as president of the City Council enabled him to break 25-25 tie-votes and enact his programs.
Washington defeated former mayor Jane Byrne in the February 24, 1987 Democratic mayoral primary by 7.2%, 53.5% to 46.3%, and in the April 7, 1987 mayoral general election defeated Vrdolyak (Illinois Solidarity Party) by 11.8%, 53.8% to 42.8%, with Northwestern University business professor Donald Haider (Republican) getting 4.3%, to win reelection to a second term as mayor. Cook County Assessor Thomas Hynes (Chicago First Party), a Daley ally, dropped out of the race 36 hours before the mayoral general election. During Washington's short second term, the Eddies fell from power: Vrdolyak became a Republican, Kelly was removed from his powerful parks post, and Burke lost his Finance Committee chairmanship.
From March 1984 to 1987, Harold Washington's Political Education Project (PEP) served as Washington's political arm, organizing both Washington's campaigns and the campaigns of his political allies. Harold Washington established the Political Education Project in 1984. This organization supported Washington's interests in electoral politics beyond the Office of the Mayor. PEP helped organize political candidates for statewide elections in 1984 and managed Washington's participation in the 1984 Democratic National Convention as a "favorite son" presidential candidate. PEP used its political connections to support candidates such as Luis Gutiérrez and Jesús "Chuy" García through field operations, voter registration and Election Day poll monitoring. Once elected, these aldermen helped break the stalemate between Washington and his opponents in the city council. Due to PEP's efforts, Washington's City Council legislation gained ground and his popularity grew as the 1987 mayoral election approached. In preparation for the 1987 mayoral election, PEP formed the Committee to Re-Elect Mayor Washington. This organization carried out fundraising for the campaign, conducted campaign events, and coordinated volunteers. PEP staff members, such as Joseph Gardner and Helen Shiller, went on to play leading roles in Chicago politics. The organization disbanded upon Harold Washington's death. Harold Washington's Political Education Project Records is an archival collection detailing the organization's work. It is located in the Chicago Public Library Special Collections, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago, Illinois.
In addition to Daley's strong-armed tactics, Washington's time in the Illinois House was also marred by problems with tax returns and allegations of not performing services owed to his clients. In her biography, Levinsohn questions whether the timing of Washington's legal troubles was politically motivated. In November 1966, Washington was re-elected to the house over Daley's strong objections; the first complaint was filed in 1964; the second was filed by January 1967. A letter asking Washington to explain the matter was sent on January 5, 1967. After failing to respond to numerous summons and subpoenas, the commission recommend a five-year suspension on March 18, 1968. A formal response to the charges did not occur until July 10, 1969. In his reply, Washington said that "sometimes personal problems are enlarged out of proportion to the entire life picture at the time and the more important things are abandoned." In 1970, the Board of Managers of the Chicago Bar Association ruled that Washington's license be suspended for only one year, not the five recommended; the total amount in question between all six clients was $205.
In 1971, Washington was charged with failure to file tax returns for four years, although the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) claimed to have evidence for nineteen years; top campaign aides later said that nineteen was closer to the truth. Judge Sam Perry noted that he was "disturbed that this case ever made it to my courtroom" — while Washington had paid his taxes, he ended up owing the government a total of $508 as a result of not filing his returns. Typically, the IRS handled such cases in civil court, or within its bureaucracy. Washington pleaded "no contest" and was sentenced to forty days in Cook County Jail, a $1,000 fine, and three years probation.
On November 25, 1987, at 11:00 a.m., Chicago Fire Department paramedics were called to City Hall. Washington's press secretary, Alton Miller, had been discussing school board issues with the mayor when Washington suddenly slumped over on his desk, falling unconscious. After failing to revive Washington in his office, paramedics rushed him to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Further attempts to revive him failed, and Washington was pronounced dead at 1:36 p.m. At Daley Plaza, Patrick Keen, project director for the Westside Habitat for Humanity, announced Washington's official time of death to a separate gathering of Chicagoans. Initial reactions to the pronouncement of his death were of shock and sadness, as many blacks believed that Washington was the only top Chicago official who would address their concerns. Thousands of Chicagoans attended his wake in the lobby of City Hall between November 27 and November 29, 1987. On November 30, 1987, Reverend B. Herbert Martin officiated Washington's funeral service in Christ Universal Temple at 119th Street and Ashland Avenue in Chicago. After the service, Washington was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side of Chicago.
Immediately after Washington's death, rumors about how Washington died began to surface. On January 6, 1988, Dr. Antonio Senat, Washington's personal physician, denied "unfounded speculations" that Washington had cocaine in his system at the time of his death, or that foul play was involved. Cook County Medical Examiner Robert J. Stein performed an autopsy on Washington and concluded that Washington had died of a heart attack. Washington had weighed 284 pounds (129 kg), and suffered from hypertension, high cholesterol levels, and an enlarged heart. On June 20, 1988, Alton Miller again indicated that drug reports on Washington had come back negative, and that Washington had not been poisoned prior to his death. Dr. Stein stated that the only drug in Washington's system had been lidocaine, which is used to stabilize the heart after a heart attack takes place. The drug was given to Washington either by paramedics, or by doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Coincidentally, Bernard Epton, Washington's opponent in the 1983 general election, followed him in death just 18 days later, on December 13, 1987.
Despite the bickering in City Council, Washington seemed to relish his role as Chicago's ambassador to the world. At a party held shortly after his re-election on April 7, 1987, he said to a group of supporters, "In the old days, when you told people in other countries that you were from Chicago, they would say, 'Boom-boom! Rat-a-tat-tat!' Nowadays, they say [crowd joins with him], 'How's Harold?'!"
In later years, various city facilities and institutions were named or renamed after the late mayor to commemorate his legacy. The new building housing the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, located at 400 South State Street, was named the Harold Washington Library Center. The Chicago Public Library Special Collections, located on the building's 9th floor, house the Harold Washington Archives and Collections. These archives hold numerous collections related to Harold Washington's life and political career.
Five months after Mayor Washington's sudden death in office, a ceremony was held on April 19, 1988, changing the name of Loop College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, to Harold Washington College. Harold Washington Elementary School in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood is also named after the former mayor. In August 2004, the 40,000-square-foot (3,700 m2) Harold Washington Cultural Center was opened to the public in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Across from the Hampton House apartments where Washington lived, a city park was renamed Harold Washington Park, which was known for "Harold's Parakeets", a colony of feral monk parakeets that inhabited Ash Trees in the park. A building on the campus of Chicago State University is named Harold Washington Hall.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago student David Nelson created Mirth & Girth, a painting that depicted Washington wearing women's lingerie and holding a pencil, which was briefly displayed in a hallway at the school on May 11, 1988. City aldermen and members of the Chicago Police Department soon seized the painting then later returned it with a five-inch gash on the canvas. Nelson, assisted by the ACLU, subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming that the painting's confiscation and subsequent damaging violated his First Amendment rights. The complainants eventually split a US$95,000 (1994, US$138,000 in 2008) settlement from the city.