On this April 12th in 1983, Harold Washington was elected the 51st Mayor of Chicago. He was the first African-American to serve in that office.
Washington was born in the Bronzeville neighborhood in 1922. He attended DuSable High School, where he starred on the track team. After Army service in World War II, he earned a B.A. at Roosevelt and a law degree at Northwestern.
He got his political start working in Ralph Metcalfe’s 3rd Ward Democratic organization. In 1965 Washington was elected to the Illinois House. Though nominally part of the Chicago Machine, he often showed an independent streak.
Washington ran into some tax problems during the 1970s and serve a short jail sentence. However, his political rise continued. He was elected to the State Senate in 1976, and to Metcalfe’s old U.S. House seat in 1980.
At first he seemed a long shot–in 1977, he had polled less than 20% of the vote. This time around, a registration drive added about 100,000 African-American voters to the rolls. And during the TV debate, Washington proved himself a thoughtful, articulate candidate.
In February Washington won the three-cornered Democratic primary with 37%. Most years that would have been the end of the story. Not in 1983.
Epton was a State Rep with a long, liberal record on civil rights. But in 1983 he also saw his big chance. His campaign dug up every negative fact in Washington’s past and invented a few more. One of his slogans played on racist fears: “Vote Epton–Before It’s Too Late.”
Washington won anyway, with just under 52% of the vote. The next day, the Defender headline said it all: “Washington Wins, Dirtiest Election Is Over–Amen!”
After being elected to a second term, Harold Washington died in office in 1987. Two years later, Chicago's new central library was named for him.