Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago, Illinois, was born on April 15, 1922, to Roy Washington, a lawyer, Methodist minister and one of the first black precinct captains in Chicago. Washington’s mother Bertha Washington was a well-known singer in the city.
Washington attended segregated public schools including the newly completed DuSable High School where he set records as a track star. Despite that success, Washington dropped out of high school at the end of his junior year and worked in a meat packing plant until his father helped him obtain a job at the U.S. Treasury office in Chicago. There he met Dorothy Finch, his future wife. The couple married in 1941 when Harold Washington was 19 and Dorothy was 17. They divorced ten years later.
In 1942 Washington was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent overseas as part of a segregated unit of the Air Force Engineers, then part of the U.S. Army. Washington served three years in the South Pacific and rose to the rank of First Sergeant.
After leaving the Army in 1945, Washington returned to Chicago and received his B.A. from Roosevelt University in 1949. He earned a J.D. from Northwestern University’s School of Law in 1952 where he was the only African American in his class. Washington was admitted to the Illinois bar and began practicing law in Chicago. He also served in the city corporation counsel’s office as an assistant prosecutor from 1954 to 1958. Beginning in 1960 he served for four years as an arbitrator for the Illinois State Industrial Commission.
Although Harold Washington had worked for 3rd Ward boss and former Olympic athlete Ralph Metcalfe since 1951, he became a candidate for office for the first time in 1965, winning a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives where he served until his election to the State Senate in 1976. Although a protégé of Metcalfe, who was part of the political machine of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, Washington occasionally challenged the machine as in the late 1960s when he