This April 29 will mark 30 years since Harold Washington was sworn in as the first African-American mayor of Chicago. Unfortunately, time can erode the details of any historic figure’s reputation in just a few seasons. Today’s generation of young Chicagoans may know Harold Washington as a library building or community college or for his famous smile, but not as the trailblazer and warrior that he was.
Harold Washington’s watchword was fairness. He was committed to equity, and not only for the African-American and Hispanic voters whom he galvanized with his candidacy. For him, fairness meant equalizing city services for all neighborhoods. This was not a modest goal – it was revolutionary. Before 1983, residents in modest or poorer neighborhoods too often did not get their fair share of city services like snow plowing or trash removal.
Harold changed that. As he told Clem Balanoff, one of his ward superintendents, “There are never enough city services. Your job is to ensure that everybody gets some of that ‘not enough’.” Not long after, Clem got a panicked call from an older black woman in his ward worried about the big blue machine tearing up her alley. Why? The alley grader may have been terrifying, but her streets were finally getting some attention.
Harold’s administration was the first to enlist a large class of accomplished blacks, Hispanics and women into key posts. He issued an executive order increasing minority business contracts and fought for ward redistricting to increase black and Hispanic representation.
Harold fought for inclusiveness while withstanding bitter racial attacks. During the 1983 campaign, Washington’s opponent Bernie Epton’s slogan was, “Epton for Mayor. Before it’s too late.” Epton was selling fear, appealing to the electorate’s basest instincts. The brawling did not end after the election. Rather, 28 aldermen aligned themselves with 10th Ward Alderman Eddie Vrdolyak and attempted to block nearly every proposal from Washington or his 21 allies.
In the years since his death, revisionists have mythologized the Washington era as a dark time. In truth, despite the headline-grabbing “Council Wars,” Harold ushered in an era of new local democracy. He opened up the budget process to public input, signed the city’s first Freedom of Information Act, and initiated real reform with elected Local School Councils who hired principals and made basic decisions about education policy.
Harold took great pride in reversing Chicago’s economic decline – during his administration traffic at O’Hare grew, housing starts increased and impoverished areas were awarded $126 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. He believed investing in the arts was critical to a city’s success, so he created the Department of Cultural Affairs, which met with groups from Albany Park to Austin to forge a cultural plan for the city. He approved an expanded public art program, supported hometown artists and launched dozens of neighborhood festivals.
Three decades later, it is startling to realize that amidst the sound and fury of an embattled City Council, Washington did more than govern Chicago. He improved it. In other places and other times, with more compliant colleagues, leaders with far more power have done far less.
Cook County Clerk