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Remembering Harold
The career of Chicago's first black mayor

Illinois Times

December 3, 1992

This piece was written on the fifth anniversary of the death from heart attack of Mayor Harold Washington. Many of the usual encomiums issued on the occasion were enlivened by an unusual word—"joy," which is not a word that gets used a lot in or about Chicago. I was living across the street from Chicago during the Washington years, and so got a closer look at it than most Downstate commentators did.


I remember watching the news on cable in Springfield when Harold Washington died. They showed some old news tapes of him in action. One caught Washington in the middle of one of his mayoral stump speeches about fairness. "You cannot hide from our fairness," he intoned soberly. "Wherever you live, however you live in the great city of Chicago, we will seek you out and be fair to you!" Perplexed silence from the crowd, until his storm-cloud look was dissipated by an enormous spreading grin.

Washington will be remembered as Chicago's first black mayor but what he really was was that city's first modern reform mayor. Because "black" means change in Chicago, black politics and reform politics are often confused by Chicago's bozo press. Washington's black constituents were as surprised as anyone to learn that he was serious about reform.

Earlier this year a book appeared about Washington's years as mayor titled, "Fire on the Prairie (Henry Holt) written by Gary Rivlin, who covered City Hall for this paper's city cousin, the Reader. Though flawed, it is a book worth reading. In spite of the author's commitment to fairness, Washington emerges as a hero, if only because everyone else in a position of public responsibility acted as if they were in a schoolyard rumble. Washington stood out in the book, as he did then, amidst a dismaying array of poseurs and fools and charlatans; reading it reawakened my Downstater's contempt for the city.

The emphasis on race in the postmortems on his public life is insulting. What impressed me was his genuine reluctance to resort to race. His anger at its exploitation by opponents was in the nature of self-defense, but it was hard to tell which part of him was more offended, the proud black man or the intelligent citizen.

When Harold Washington said that he ran for mayor to show the children of Chicago that there is a better way to live, you could believe him. He seemed diffident about power and largely immune to the usual vanities of public men. Nor did he mean that he was a "positive role model" for children of color. He didn't run to show white Chicagoans that black people could be as good as they are, but to show that those whites could be better than they themselves thought they could be, by learning to support or even love a black mayor.

Personality is what Chicago politics thrives on, not party, certainly not ideas, only incidentally rational self-interest, and Harold was a personality. He was a complicated and far from perfect man—a Machine reformer, a politician who loved books, an athlete who died because he neglected his body. All this made him a frustrating and fascinating figure of study. Carol Mosely Braun once remarked that Washington made people who didn't know him feel that they did, while he made the people who did know him feel that they didn't.

Everyone has their favorite stories. One of mine is about how he ventured into the Northwest Side, the enemy stronghold of the white ethnics, to make a speech at a Polish dinner-dance. It was Mayor Washington who went there to make a speech; it was Harold who stayed and danced with (and charmed) all the ladies. 

A few months ago I was in Chicago, exploring the new main library, named after the late mayor. By accident I wandered into the Harold Washington Archives on the ninth floor. In one of the rooms there is a TV set on a stand in front of a few folding chairs, where sat a handful of people of mixed races and ages who looked as if they'd stumbled upon the place as I had.

Playing on the TV set was a half-hour video about the man's life and career. And as I suspected it might be, the production was usual tribute to the famous—worshipful and dull, coming alive only when they showed clips of the man himself. I did not want to watch the tape. But when I moved toward the door the security guard whispered politely that it was only a few more minutes until the end. He clearly wanted me to stay to see it all. He seemed to feel himself not just a guard but a teacher, one who, as a young black man in Chicago, had in Harold Washington something of value that the rest of the world ought to know about.

The production credits at the end of the tape rolled over the scenes of Washington on election night, singing about that toddlin' town—remarkably, he knew the words to every chorus—in a voice that was a victory of exuberance over tunelessness. I felt again what Illinois doesn't have anymore because he died.

People in Chicago talk about Washington's sense of fun, his combativeness, his theatrical rhetoric as the things they miss. What I sense the city really misses these days is a sense of serious purpose, a sense that the city could be made to work, that Washington awakened in people. A friend of mine went to his second inaugural. Traditionally these affairs are drunken celebrations. She recalled for me her surprise and admiration that the everyday people in the back rows listened attentively to every word of every speech as if they were in church or a lecture hall. When Washington said of the city, "This isn't seventh heaven but if you give me four years it will be," people believed him. That hopefulness didn't last long, as his first term was tragically wasted by a racist and obstructionist city council.

Would things have been any different had Washington lived? To answer that it is first necessary to separate the problems Chicago has from Chicago's problems. No mayor can do much to stem the macroeconomic trends that are impoverishing the city. But a good mayor can still do a lot, for example by reforming the schools, the CTA, and public housing. Would Washington have taken up these Sisyphean tasks had he lived? Maybe. Could he? Yes, and that is not something anyone can say about the present mayor or any other white mayor. It will take a black mayor to do those things for the same reasons it took an anticommunist like Nixon to open the door to China. People complain that Richie Daley isn't his old man; the real problem is that he isn't Harold Washington. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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