It was on a Wednesday. November 25, 1987. And I don’t remember why I was at home around 1:00 p.m. that day. Normally I would have been downtown in the office or at the Cook County Law Library across the street doing research for a case, working my job as a paralegal for a large Chicago law firm. But I was home in my apartment.
I do remember clearly, though, that I was in the midst of writing a critique of something the mayor had said or done, and I planned to finish the piece and then publish it in the Chicago Defender within the next day or so.
I honestly don’t remember why I was upset with the mayor or what the issue was, but I have ever since been kicking myself for “critiquing”/criticizing Harold Washington on the day of his death.
And then the phone rang. It was my girlfriend whom I’d been seeing for about six months.
“Are you watching TV?” she asked. I started to question her as to why she omitted the usual salutation of “Hello.” But I didn’t. All I could manage was, “Ah…well…”
“Turn it on,” she said. “Any channel. Then call me back later.” And without a “Good Bye,” she hung up.
“Hmmm,” I thought. My mind began to race. I remembered that the last time I had received one of these “turn-on- the-TV” calls had been a little less than two years earlier. At that time, I was in my cubicle hard at work when my cousin Donald called. “You watchin’ TV?” he asked.
“No. I’m working, man,” I answered. “What’s up?”
“Get to a TV…and then call me back,” he said. And then hung up. No “Good Bye” was offered.
That was on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, around 9:30 a.m. Chicago time. I got up from my desk and walked down the hall passed many other curiously empty cubes and desks and into a large conference room. A number of attorneys, including my boss, other paralegals and secretaries, even the office cleaning lady and janitor, stood gathered around a TV at the back of the room.
The Space Shuttle “Challenger” had just blown up.
And so here it was not quite two years later, and I found myself responding to yet another “turn-on-the-TV” phone call.
This one, though, was different, much different from the “Challenger” disaster. This one was personal…and thisclose to home.
You see, in 1987, I was living in Chicago’s tony, only truly racially integrated neighborhood called Hyde Park. I lived in a building called “Hampton House” in a 7th floor apartment overlooking a small, neat, leafy green park through my front window; and I had fully half of Chicago’s portion of Lake Michigan in my bedroom window.
My neighbor, Harold Washington, Mayor Harold Washington lived on the 2nd floor.
As the television reporters breathlessly reported the news that the mayor had collapsed at his desk and had been transported to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, none of them had any “news” about his “condition” yet. Only speculation. Heart attack or stroke were the immediate and most likely suspects.
I screamed at the TV. “No!” I yelled. “Not Harold! This can’t be happening!”
My mind raced even faster…recalling and remembering and wondering at every single encounter I’d ever had with this man, my neighbor, my mayor, the Mayor of Chicago, the first Black Mayor of Chicago. I had known him for some years, simply by virtue of living in his building — going back to when he was a state senator, then as Congressman Harold Washington.
I remembered seeing him almost every morning as I left the building headed for work. He would be standing in the front vestibule, leaning over the front desk talking to the security guard or chatting up the doorman as I passed.
“Hey, Congressman!” I would say. “How you doin’ this morning?”
Once, around 1981, as the push to select and elect a black mayor was gaining steam, I asked him, “Congressman, when you gonna run for mayor?”
“Man, I ain’t thinkin’ about no damn mayor’s office,” he answered, almost indignantly. “I’m happy in Congress and plan to stay there for at least twenty more years!”
In those days, you could smoke anywhere, everywhere…and I was always smoking. Sometimes, as I passed by the Congressman, puffing away, and after our by now ritualized greeting, he would say,
“Hey, Herb, give me one of those Kool cigarettes.”
As I watched the news unfold that afternoon, I thought, “Damn, did my cigarettes contribute to this terrible day?”
Harold Washington was a consummate politician, a lawyer, a gregarious, black-slapping, “Hail fellow, well met” kind of guy, a born and bred Chicagoan right down to his polysyllabic vocabulary which kept reporters, other pols, and the general public running to our dictionaries to find out what that word he just used meant.
And then I began to lay blame. Was it that recalcitrant, racist white-majority City Council which had made its purpose in life to make sure Chicago’s first black mayor failed? Had his battles in what became known as “Council Wars” given him heart burn for the last four years, and now — finally — a heart attack?
Or, even more ominously, had Harold Washington been murdered, poisoned? News began to seep out that he had been drinking a cup of coffee and talking with his press secretary when he slumped over at his desk. Whispers and rumors abound even unto this day.
When Harold ran for mayor in 1982 (he had run before in ’71 and lost), his campaigned resembled more of a crusade than a campaign. Black Chicago united around this man in a way that I had never seen and have not seen since.
Black people (strangers) even began speaking to each other on the street. Senior citizens seemed to walk with their backs a little straighter. The gangbangers called a truce and cease fire. Hell, even the winos and drug addicts got the message — and got themselves registered to vote for Harold.
I remembered at one campaign event in the ‘hood, he was told that his white opponents were handing out turkeys and, in some cases, cash in an attempt to buy black folks’ votes. (This was, as now, Thanksgiving week). What should they do, someone asked him?
“Take the turkey,” Harold answered. “Take the cash. And then vote for me!”