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College celebrates 30 years since renamed after city’s first black mayor

College celebrates 30 years since renamed after city’s first black mayor

By Antonio Garcia

The entire room fills with students, faculty, administration and colleagues of former Mayor Harold Washington. 

As each row of chairs organized in front of a podium and projector begins to fill and the room goes dark and a video montage projected onto a large screen begins to play. Images and video of Washington play from his days as the city’s mayor. 

As the applause from the crowds subsides after being taken back to a time when Washington lived, Wendell Blair takes hold of the microphone and introduces himself. 

Blair shares a tradition of his with the audience by asking one single question;

“Who’s house?,” asked Blair.

“Harold’s house!,” responded the audience.

Harold Washington College on April 20 held a 30-year commemorative celebration dedicated to Chicago's first African-American mayor and the college’s namesake.

“I was compelled to be here on this day to educate people on Harold Washington,” said Hermene D. Hartman, former vice-chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago.

On Dec. 2, 1987, “Loop College” was re-named after Harold Washington, who had died on Nov. 25, 1987, by the City Colleges of Chicago board, according to Hartman.

“I can tell you that he was a very serious individual and an avid reader,” said Josie L. Childs, founder of the Harold Washington Legacy Committee. “He was also real private.”

“He was always interested in reading and writing,” said Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman. “Harold always pushed others and for years he did that.”

Washington ran in many different social circles and was privileged in many ways because his father was a lawyer in the 1950s, according to Freeman, who was the first African American supreme court justice to swear in a Chicago mayor. 

“Mayor Harold Washington had a lot of flavor, a lot of passion,” added Blair, dean of student services at City Colleges of Chicago since 2008. 

Washington had a true passion and devotion to politics and was at the brink of a political revolution, something rare to the Chicago political machine. 

As a member of the Young Democrats, Washington had the foresight to see that it was important to reach out to young, underrepresented people throughout Chicago. 

“Politics were different back then,” said Freeman. “There was a rebellion coming and Harold was an indication of that rebellion coming.”

Washington, eager to make a mark for himself and distance himself from the shadow cast by his father, decided to run for mayor in 1983. 

“In those days, when you had real machine politics, you couldn’t run unless you had the endorsement of Mayor [Richard J.] Daley,” said Childs, who worked on Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign.

“At the time that he ran for mayor if you had gone by resume, the job would have been his, no contest,” said Turtel Onli, art professor at Harold Washington College and colleague of Washington. 

Washington served as a member of the Illinois State Senate, Illinois House of Representatives and U.S. House of representatives. 

Washington’s time as mayor revolutionized Chicago politics. 

“You get to Harold Washington and you arrive at this oasis, this refreshing instance of someone who truly tried to introduce a democratic model such that many historians [and] [sic] political scientists to this day agree was one of the most democratic experiments in the history of any american city in terms of access and opportunity [and] in terms of prioritizing the needs of developing neighborhoods [and] low income neighborhoods,” said Domenico R. Ferri, Ph.D., and professor at HWC. 

Washington’s “Get Out and Vote” campaign registered over 150,000 chicagoans who were politically inactive, a model used by former-president Barack Obama in both of his presidential campaigns, according to Ferri.

“You can’t pass my class without taking the mandatory trip to the Harold Washington Library,” said Onli. “That library is his legacy, and is the number one rated library in the United States, and number three rated library on earth.”

“If we had had someone like Mayor Harold Washington running the city during the great migration in the early twentieth century, it is my firm belief that if housing was not segregated by design after the 1919 race riot...we wouldn’t have a lot of these problems, we wouldn’t have deserts of deprivations within our city were folks resort to desperate means [of] killing one another for lack of opportunity,” said Ferri. 

As guest speakers begin to scatter about, the jazz band begins to play and everyone’s attention turns to a celebratory cake in honor of the school’s namesake. 

“When you look at his own history he’s constantly swimming upstream and he’s swimming upstream at a time [when] you [have to] really swim and sometimes without a life preserver,” said Onli. “I think his inner drive during the good times and bad [times] was there and his sense of being a humanitarian was there [too].”

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