By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
Chicagoans from across the city gathered at the Hyde Park Historical Society to share memories of their encounters with the late Mayor Harold Washington in observance of the 25th anniversary of his death.
The Hyde Park Herald and Hyde Park Historical Society co-hosted a panel discussion titled “It’s a Harold Thing: The Legacy of Harold Washington in the Age of Obama” Sunday afternoon at the Hyde Park Historical Society, 5529 S. Lake Park Ave. Panelists included Timuel Black, historian, author and activist; Sue Purrington, former executive director of the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) Chicago chapter; former IVI-IPO head Barbara O’Connor; Elizabeth Brackett, host of Chicago Tonight on WTTW; and Jacky Grimshaw, who worked as an organizer during Harold Washington’s administration and is currently a vice president at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
Why Obama chose Hyde Park
The panelists used U.S. President Barack Obama’s own words to describe how Harold Washington’s legacy as the city’s first African American mayor influenced his life.
“What led him to Chicago from New York was a chance to organize,” O’Connor said. “Why Hyde Park? Because it has an independent and reformed people.”
O’Connor spoke about how Washington’s father was a member of the Democratic Party when many African Americans were Republican.
“His father was told he could run for alderman of the 3rd Ward,” O’Connor said. “When his father was passed over for alderman that began Harold’s love-hate relationship with the Democrats.”
Panelists pointed to Hyde Park’s civic leadership as providing fertile ground for independent candidates, with politicians such as former 5th Ward Ald. Leon Despres and former U.S. Congressman (D-2) and federal judge Abner Mikva and others who were not afraid to separate themselves from or rebel against what was called the Democratic machine. This environment served as an incubator that could hatch the plan to get the first African American mayor of Chicago elected. This inspired Obama to head to Chicago and begin his work as an organizer.
Black said Washington also grew up in the same type of nonconformist environment.
“Harold came from a community that had political organizing strength,” said Black, who attended DuSable High School and Roosevelt University with Washington. “In the days when Blacks were still republicans his father was a Democrat.”
Although his father made the unorthodox choice at the time to side with the Democrats, once the party went back on their promise to endorse him as 3rd Ward alderman, his father broke ties with the party, Black said.
“Because his father was passed over for alderman of the 3rd Ward Harold had a love-hate relationship with the Democrats,” Black said.
Black said Harold was a part of the Democratic organization but, like many African Americans of that day, he shared the ideals of independent political activists.
“[The community] was independent. We took our agenda to him and he would introduce our ideas,” Black said.
After an unsuccessful first attempt at running for mayor in 1976 in a special election after the sudden death of Richard J. Daley, Black said Washington laughed at those who urged him to run again in 1983.
“He said if we could get [more voters’] signatures he’d do it,” Black said. “We registered 263,000 voters, went to Harold and said ‘What are you going to do now?’”
O’Connor said, because of the loss a few years earlier, when Washington ran again in ’83 “he knew what he needed to do.”
Brackett said the media didn’t know what to make of Washington at first, so no one paid attention until the campaign started to evolve.
“As the momentum started to build it became fascinating to watch,” said Brackett, who said she was working for CBS Channel 2 news at the time.
Reaching all communities
Having secured the signatures he needed in the African American community, Washington began to seek support from the predominately white communities on the North Side and the Latino community on the West Side and women’s groups such as NOW.
“There were seas of blue Harold Washington pins,” said Purrington as she passed campaign buttons around the room, which was filled to capacity, during the discussion.
She said the organization went through a hard time when it first began to support Washington but some good came from their choice.
“About 30 percent of our members walked out and never came back because they were totally opposed to Harold as mayor,” Purrington said as she passed around pictures of Washington at NOW’s Walk-A-Thon and a tea and crumpets fundraiser. “He helped us get turned on to campaigning.”
Sally Johnson, who worked in the mayor’s office during the Washington administration, said she was in charge of organizing neighborhood forums and had fond memories of working on the West Side.
“I worked with the Puerto Rican community in 1983 and we were able to secure 25,000 votes,” said Johnson, who said at the time that amount of votes in that community was unprecedented.
Harold’s leadership style
“At Roosevelt, Harold, he was already a leader,” said Black, who spoke about how Washington became the student body president of what was then a predominately white college.
“His sense of humor and winning smile were a marvelous feature,” said Hyde Park resident Charles Staples.
“Harold knew how to remember faces and names and that helped draw people to him,” said Grimshaw.
Bonnie Brendel said she was always amazed that Washington remembered her son by name.
“My son Seth was very young the first time we met Harold,” Brendel said. “Over the years whenever we’d see him he’d stop and say ‘Hi Seth.’”
Brackett said it was Washington’s personable demeanor and compelling intellect that made covering him enjoyable.
“He was fun to cover, especially after covering the Daleys,” Brackett said. “This was a man who could think and speak well and he liked the press. The Daleys treated the press as the enemy.”
Grimshaw said Washington was a voracious reader and Black said Washington was a universalist and he loved to interact with people.
The race factor
Black said although Washington was building great relationships, the narrow margins by which he won the mayoral election was evidence of racial divide. He said the results made him ask the question, “Do we really hold these truths to be self evident, are all men created equal? Harold is the answer to that and Barack is also the answer to that on a higher level.”
Despite people’s feelings about having an African American mayor, Washington was able to work with city council during what was called the “council wars” and get things accomplished in the city such as making Martin Luther King Day a holiday and getting a 10-year extension on the Voter’s Rights Act. He also worked with teacher and social activist Al Raby to desegregate schools and housing in the city.
Grimshaw said although the council refused to ratify Washington’s appointees, the bottom line compelled them to work with Washington.
“They were never so racist that they wouldn’t work to get jobs, city services and other interests of their constituents met,” she said.
Black said the last time he saw Washington he had put on a considerable amount of weight, which made him concerned about his health; he advised him to get some rest.
Grimshaw said people often thought a bad diet was the cause of Washington’s weight gain and health complications but she said it was mainly a lack of mobility.
“When [Washington] became mayor they wouldn’t let him walk across the street,” said Grinshaw, who said Washington often ate salads. “So those comments about him eating too much fried chicken were a myth. He cherished his life.”
News of Harold’s death
Purrington said she would never forget where she was when she heard the news of Washington’s death.
“I was at work when I heard the news and I asked to get off of work as soon as possible,” said Purrington, who said she and other members of NOW ran right over to the Rainbow PUSH headquarters once they were released from work. “It was packed when we got there.”
Fran Vandervoort, who was a science teacher at Kenwood High School during the time, said when she heard that Washington was taken to the hospital she stayed glued to the radio for updates.
“During my lunch hour I listened to the radio. Harold was taken to the hospital and wasn’t doing well,” Vandervoort said. “I needed to get back to the classroom so I asked one of my more responsible students to stay in the break area and alert me on the updates. About 10-15 minutes later the student came into the room and told me he died.”
Vandervoort said she felt responsible to veer away from class assignments and announce the news of Washington’s death to her students.
“Once I did, there was total silence in the room,” Vandervoort said.
She said the class then had a dialogue about how they would remember Washington.
“I went to visit Harold’s grave — it was so self effacing,” Brendel said. “It’s just a little plaque that states, ‘Harold Washington, He loved Chicago.’”