Almanac April 15 :: Harold Washington

Harold Lee Washington (April 15, 1922 – November 25, 1987) was an American lawyer and politician who became the first African-American Mayor of Chicago, serving from 1983 until his death in 1987.

Harold Washington was born on April 15, 1922, 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 make a fortune in Chicago as a singer. She married Roy soon after arriving in Chicago and had three children, one named Kevin and the other named Ramon Price (from a later marriage), former artist and chief curator of The DuSable Museum of African American History. Washington grew up in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, at the time the epicenter of black culture in the city. He attended DuSable High School, then a new segregated high school, and was a member of the 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 classwork. He worked at a meat packing plant for a time before his father helped him get a job at the U.S. Treasury. There he met Dorothy Finch, whom he married soon after—Washington was 20, and Dorothy 17. Seven months later, the U.S. was drawn into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1942, Washington was drafted into the war and sent overseas as part of a segregated unit of the Army Air Forces Engineers. In the Philippines, Washington was a part of a unit building runways. Eventually, Washington rose to the rank of First Sergeant in the Air Force. In her biography of Harold Washington, Florence Hamlish Levinsohn surmises that the three years Washington spent fighting for his country in the South Pacific while experiencing racial prejudice and discrimination helped shape his views on racial justice in the mayoral run to come.




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