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Chicago Celebrates Harold Washington’s 90th birthday

Chicagoans remembered and celebrated Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American leader, on Thursday, which would have been his 90th birthday.

Several Chicago organizations hosted events to commemorate the former mayor. We Can, Inc., a Chicago-based African-American business alliance, hosted a memorial celebration at Josephine’s Captain’s Hard Time Cooking restaurant, a soul food restaurant on the South side.

The mission of We Can, Inc. is to improve the quality of life within the community and enhance economic opportunities for all African-Americans.

Florence Cox, president of We Can, Inc., said there wouldn’t be a better time to put this dinner together than the celebration of Harold Washington’s birthday. Cox added that their mission reflects Harold Washington’s goals.

“Harold Washington wanted this not only for black people, but for all people,” Cox said. “He’s basically the genesis of our operation.”

Though Washington also served three terms in the Illinois House of Representatives and one in the Illinois Senate, it was his mayoral campaign against incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley that gained him international attention. On Election Day 1983, Washington won the election by 3.3 percent.

Despite Washington’s struggle against Chicago’s old political system and racial divisions, the former mayor left an enduring mark on the entire city.

Washington had set up requirements for minority and women-owned contractors that were to do business with the city, began the modernization plan at O’Hare International Airport and worked toward the construction of a new central public library—Harold Washington Library. He also established the first Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues and was the first mayor to headline a gay rights rally.

“He meant a great deal to the community,” Cox said. “Not only because he was the first black mayor, but when you look at what he did as a congressman, he did a lot. He was a very personable man; he made a significant contribution to the way people view the city of Chicago.”

Cox added that although Washington’s legacy still needs to be carried out, getting policies he would have liked institutionalized is something that organizations such as We Can, Inc. still have to work at.

Yvette McDonald, a frequent patron of the restaurant, says the celebration means a great deal to the community.

“I think that Harold Washington made a major impact in the city of Chicago in terms of its people, neighborhoods and politics. I think he will always be remembered even though his tenure was short lived,” McDonald said.

The event was not just a remembrance, but also a great day for business at the restaurant.

“Tonight we’re going to have a lot of business people, senior citizens that once were in business and a lot of elected officials that worked with Harold back in the day,” said Josephine Wade, co-owner of Captain’s Hard Time Dining. “We’re expecting 300 to 400 people.”

Gwen Hardison, a waitress at Captain’s Hard Time, said, “I hope that it means a little more business and that it helps to promote the business.”

Washington was born and raised on the city’s Southside, and spent his years in public office improving his political and leadership skills.

“What we would like [people] to take away from this event is that no matter who you are or where you’re from, you do matter and you do make a difference, and in order for this city to work, we must put our petty differences aside and work as a whole,” Cox said.

Autographed photos of officials and activists from the community line the walls of Captain's Hard Time in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham.

Sean McEntee, Sarah Salgado and Caitlyn Baxa contributed to this report.

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