Before Obama, there was Harold.
Harold Washington was the mayor of Chicago from the spring
of 1983 until his death the day before Thanksgiving 1987. The pride and
excitement we all felt that cold night in Grant Park 21 years later for Obama
was paved by the council wars and hard work of Harold.
I was in grade school during Harold’s two terms but I
remember Harold and his legacy well. Harold was the first politician to be “one
of us”, granted he was well educated, even better spoken but his love for the
city (and books), and was unquestioned.
Harold fought like hell for us, you could feel it, you read
it in the paper and you saw it in his press conferences on TV. The conflict
that Obama deals with in Congress today is actually mild to the council wars of
the 80’s with Harold.
Though I was young I felt the vibe and pride of living in a
city run by Harold, as children we wore his campaign buttons. He had passion
for this city and the people in it, all people, for that’s how he was voted in
by a coalition of people from all wards, all backgrounds but the south side was
his home, Hyde Park specifically. He lived right on 53rd Street just
off of Lake Shore Drive, just east of the Boulevard (Hyde Park Blvd). The park
there now is named for him.
The vast library system we have now was a plan of Harold’s.
Harold loved to read and when I was young we didn’t have a local library in
West Pullman, we had to go all the way to 95th & Halsted to the
Regional library (Carter G Woodson), and it was great but not close to home.
At that time I used to have to go to the Illinois Eye
Institute at 32nd & Michigan for eye appointments and if we were
early there was a nice library at 34th & King Drive (King Branch), and
they had a great children’s reading area and my mother could grade her papers
and I could read. It was wonderful and I wished we had a library close to us
And many years later the West Pullman branch opened at 119th
& Halsted, Harold would have liked it. Very bright, open, an urban oasis,
as a neighborhood library should be.
Like so many great people, Harold was gone too soon, his
second term had barely started, his legacy though rich was short and we were
left with sorrow in our hearts.
I remember the day he died, the day before Thanksgiving;
remember its 1987 so just radio, TV and newspapers. Rumors that he died in a
restaurant, was he poisoned? These were later unfounded but that day was sad & chaotic.
See old man Richard J Daley had died in office
only 11 years prior.
But was such sadness, our man was gone and he hadn’t had
time to lay the brickwork for a successor, he was just getting his agenda
going. He gave the city credibility by getting Jane Byrne’s name off of
everything. I remember even the garbage trucks said her name (years later Rod Blagojevich
plastered his name everywhere like graffiti too), so Harold was getting us into
position to be that world class city.
But he never saw it.
His funeral was at Christ Universal Temple 119th
& Ashland off of Interstate 57, it was fit for a king for he was our leader
those few short years. Not Jesse Jackson or any other loudmouth wanna be.
Harold had the power, grace and poise that made everyone so proud. And he was
funny. When mentioning the old Chicago rep of being a gangster town and people
would say “Bang bang pow”, in reference to that past, he said now when people
mention Chicago they say “How’s Harold?”
He used to have a weekly radio show I listened to with my
mother, I believe it was on several stations, including WVON and you could hear
one word of his voice and know it was Harold.
I remember after he passed my fifth grade teacher (Kathryn
Peecher rest her soul), took me and a classmate to his grave at Oakwood cemetery after we had
been to the district science fair and it was just disbelief that he was gone.
Harold was so full of life, it was contagious, he wasn’t like the stuck up local
politicians we have today. Even people who didn’t like Harold politically
wanted to see what he was going to say. He was eloquent, had that old school
education and could have read the phone book and we would have been mesmerized.
I was a kid but adults alike stood in reverence to Harold. It’s
been 25 years since he’s been gone, but not forgotten.