Remembering the Day Harold Washington Became Mayor

There was likely a chill in the spring air on the morning of April 29, 1983 when Harold Washington awoke just after 4 a.m. The forecast included clouds, possible early showers and highs that would reach into the 60s, but be cooler by the lake. At Navy Pier, preparations were already underway for the afternoon's event, the inauguration of Chicago's first African American mayor.

Washington had won a hard fought Democratic primary in February 1983 that included then incumbent Jane Byrne and future mayor Richard M. Daley. He then defeated opponents Bernard E. Epton and Ed Warren in the general election on April 12.

Shortly after 6 a.m., Washington left his home headed to the WMAQ offices at the Merchandise Mart where he was interviewed for a nationally televised segment on the Today show. He paused afterwards for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and vending machine coffee, before heading back home to relax and prepare for the inaugural ceremony. At noon, before stepping into the existing Mayor's vehicle, a black Cadillac limousine that would deliver him to Navy Pier, Washington stated, "I'm going to work."

The Tribune deemed April 29, 1983, "Harold Washington's day, and he deserves for it to be grand. He earned it through his election victory and what he has done with it. It is Chicago's day as well, for the very same reasons." At 2:53 p.m., 4,000 guests watched as Mayor Harold Washington was sworn in as the first African American Mayor of Chicago by Charles E. Freeman, Justice of the Appellate Court of Illinois.

In his inaugural address, Washington shared:

I hope someday to be remembered by history as the Mayor who cared about people and who was, above all, fair. A Mayor who helped, who really helped, heal our wounds and stood the watch while the City and its people answered the greatest challenge in more than a century. Who saw that City renewed.

The next day's press characterized the speech as "simple truth," "well-received" and "almost presidential," despite also including critical remarks from less supportive Aldermen William O. Lipinski and Roman Pucinski. However, before heading off to the Hilton to celebrate with close family and friends, the newly inaugurated Mayor Washington declared, "I feel good -- it's been a good day."

Washington was re-elected to the office in 1987, but died just seven months into his second term on November 25. 

Today, Harold Washington's legacy lives on. His archives are held in the library he proudly advocated for as mayor, and which now bears his name: The Harold Washington Library Center. These papers, the Harold Washington Archives & Collections document his career and administration, and are publicly available in the Special Collections and Preservation Division on the library's ninth floor. Through manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, videotapes, artifacts and books from his personal library, researchers can learn more about the work of Chicago's beloved 51st mayor.