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Mayor Harold Washington (1922 - 1987)
Former Mayor of Chicago


Harold Washington was the city of Chicago's first black mayor. His election in 1983 gained national attention. He defeated Republican candidate Bernard Epton with what many considered a "rainbow coalition" of supporters: blacks, Hispanics, Asians, liberal whites, women, and the elderly. Here is a brief biography.

Chicago (CNN)--Harold Washington was born on April 15, 1922 in Chicago, one of 11 children. His father was a Methodist minister and precinct captain who encouraged Washington's love of reading and appreciation for education. But his school career was interrupted by war in February 1943, when he left high school to join the Army as part of the 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion, where he became First Sergeant and his unit received the Meritorious Service award for building a bomber landing strip on the Pacific Island of Anguar in just 20 days.
After being discharged in 1946, Washington returned home, finished high school, college, and earned a law degree in 1952.

In 1954, after the death of his father, Washington took over as precinct captain, and his political career began. He worked as an attorney and government official, and served 15 years in the state legislature before his election to Congress in 1980. In 1983, his surprise primary election victory over then-Mayor Jane Byrne and future-mayor Richard M. Daley put a national spotlight on Washington. He became Chicago's first black mayor when he defeated Republican candidate Bernard Epton.

After the election, he was almost immediately involved in a bitter battle with political opponents in the City Council who resisted cooperating with him, as an avowed outsider and reformer. That period was marked by stormy fights in the Council between the 29 anti-Washington aldermen and the 21 who were loyal to the new mayor.

While his years were somewhat tumultuous, Washington did have numerous accomplishments. He is probably most noted for bringing opportunity to the underprivileged. He helped increase significantly the number of city contracts awarded to minority businesses, as well as helped open doors for minorities to obtain top positions in City Hall.

In this spirit, Harold Washington made Illinois the first state to honor Martin Luther King by creating a state holiday. He created the first city-wide Ethics Ordinance, and by writing the city's own Freedom of Information Act, he encouraged everyone to become informed and involved with community operations. Harold Washington had always said that he would stay in office till the day he died, hoping to outlast former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was in office for 20 years. He only served a little more than four years having passed away from a massive heart attack while in office.