Mayor Harold Washington Biography

Mayor of Chicago, 1983-1987

  • Democratic Party
  • Won primary election February 22, 1983, defeating Jane Byrne, Richard M. Daley, Sheila Jones, William R. Markowski and Frank R. Ranallo
  • Elected 51st mayor of Chicago April 12, 1983; defeated Bernard E. Epton (Republican) and Ed Warren (Socialist Workers) in general election
  • Won primary election February 24, 1987, defeating Jane Byrne and Sheila Jones
  • Elected to second term as mayor April 7, 1987; defeated Donald H. Haider (Republican) and Edward R. Vrdolyak (Illinois Solidarity) in general election
  • Inauguration to first term: April 29, 1983
  • Inauguration to second term: May 4, 1987


  • Born April 15, 1922 in Chicago
  • Father was Roy Lee Washington Sr. (1897-1953). Mother was Bertha Jones Washington (1898-1980). His parents married July 29, 1916. They had four children: Roy Jr., Geneva, Edward Glen and Harold. Roy and Bertha Washington divorced in 1928. In 1933, Roy married Arlene Jackson. They had no children. Bertha also remarried. She and husband Ernest Oliver Price had six children: Ernestine, Ernest Jr., Ramon, Gwendolynn, Elaine and Patricia.
  • Harold Washington married Nancy Dorothy Finch on July 22, 1942. They divorced without children on February 25, 1950. At his death, he was engaged to Mary Ella Smith.
  • Died in office November 25, 1987
  • Buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago

Military Service

  • In World War II, served in the 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion, rising to rank of first sergeant. The 1887th received the Meritorious Service Unit Award for building a bomber landing strip on the Pacific island of Angaur in only 20 days. Washington received the American Campaign Medal, among other honors; honorably discharged in 1946.


  • Attended DuSable High School, 1936-1939; diploma awarded after military service, 1946
  • Enrolled in Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939
  • Graduated from Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University) in 1949
  • Graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 1952; began private practice the same year


  • Began serving as an assistant city prosecutor in Chicago in 1954
  • Began serving as precinct captain in the 3rd Ward in 1954; his father had previously held this position
  • Began working as arbitrator for the Illinois Industrial Commission in 1960
  • Served in the Illinois Legislature
    • Illinois state representative, 1965-1977
    • Illinois state senator, 1977-1981
  • Served in U.S. Congress, 1981-1983
  • Elected Chicago’s first African American mayor in 1983; re-elected in 1987

Selected Accomplishments

  • Created the Ethics Commission
  • Increased the number of underrepresented groups in city government and in city contracts
  • Opened government with a Freedom of Information executive order
  • Led fight for ward redistricting, more black and Hispanic representation
  • Opened the city’s budget process for public input and participation
  • Achieved more balanced economic development between neighborhoods and downtown
  • Encouraged neighborhood festivals and projects
  • Created a citywide cultural plan
  • Guided effort to build a new central library that helped revitalize the South Loop
  • Led movement for Illinois’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill

CPL Resources

Additional Resources

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