ON THIS DAY: Harold Washington’s Inauguration

On this day in 1983 Harold Washington was inaugurated the 51st mayor of Chicago. Washington was the first African American to be elected the Mayor of Chicago, and served until his death in November 1987. The Chicago History Museum Prints and Photographs Collection includes photographs from photographers and photojournalists from the 20th century through the present. The photographs in the collection capture both historic events in Chicago and the nation’s history, to everyday life in the neighborhoods. We chose these pictures taken by Richard Gordon, who covered the 1983 Mayoral Race from nearly every angle, with an especially keen focus on Harold Washington. 

Harold Washington Shaking Hands with Two Women on Lasalle Street. 1983. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Photograph by Richard Gordon. Permission to display given by Chicago History Museum.

The story of Washington’s election has been told numerous times, as a victory in the history of Chicago and Black History, and as a restorative moment in black leadership in electoral politics.  After serving in the Illinois House and Senate for 15 years Washington cast a bid in the 1977 special election against Mayor Daley’s successor Mayor Bilandic. 

His platform was progressive even by today’s standards. He resolved to work against the democratic party machine where career politicians had capitalized on their political stature and created public programs to ensure affordable rent and more control for public housing, a civilian oversight board to screen and investigate complaints about Chicago Police conduct, and stimulus to the Chicago Transit Authority which was consistently losing ridership. 

After losing the 1977 mayoral primaries to Jane Byrne, Washington was elected to represent the Illinois 1st Congressional District in Congress.

Jane Byrne at a campaign event during the Democratic mayoral primary race.1983. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Photograph by Richard Gordon. Permission to display given by Chicago History Museum.

Running for mayor would be a loss in political stature and relative comfort. Washington did not run in 1983 on his own volition. When approached by community organizers to run for mayor, he agreed to run if they registered 50,000 new black voters. They responded by registering 100,000 new voters.

Richard M. Daley campaigning for election.1983. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Photograph by Richard Gordon. Permission to display given by Chicago History Museum.

His campaign faced incredible and open racism at the hands of the city council that provoked the unexpected crossing of party lines in deeply blue Chicago. “ It would be the worst day in the history of Chicago if your candidate was not elected. It’s a racial thing, don’t kid yourself. I’m calling on you to save your city, to save your precinct. We’re fighting to keep the city the way it is.” Alderman and Chairman of the Cook County Democratic party Edward Vrdolyak said during a get out the vote rally ahead of the Democaratic Primary Election. The rally was supposed to be for mayor Jane Byrne’s reelection, a chance to give her a boost in the primary elections above Washington and Daley– but with this outburst, the racist spirit of the rally was clear.  Even after winning the primary, many of Chicago’s democratic aldermen, including Vrdolyak, put their support behind Washington’s Republican opponent, Bernard Epton.

Democratic supporters for Republican mayoral candidate Bernard Epton riding in a campaign vehicle. 1983. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Photograph by Richard Gordon. Permission to display given by Chicago History Museum.

Even after the election, this confederation of aldermen created a hostile political situation that would continue through Mayor Washington’s tenure, effectively limiting Mayor Washington’s impact.

Harold Washington and supporters walking down stairs. 1983. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Photograph by Richard Gordon. Permission to display given by Chicago History Museum.

Washington’s charisma comes through in many of the photographs Gordon took of him. But this photo of Muhammad Ali, campaigning for Washington is particularly special. In a moment of Chicago’s politics known for the alliances known as the “Political Machine” the faces of the anti-machine were powerful in garnering attention and trust.

Muhammed Ali campaigning for Harold Washington.1983. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Photograph by Richard Gordon. Permission to display given by Chicago History Museum.

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