#771: The Harold Washington Robot

March 31st, 2017

If you watch the robot instead of the movie he gestured you to, it shifts in its chair.

Once or twice, it blinks, maybe cocks its head. They’re jarringly human gestures. They’re the little twitches and nods a man would make trying to get comfortable while you watched a movie about his life.

But the man has been dead for 30 years. At his desk, a robot sits, gesturing and blinking and being eerily almost natural as it narrates the life of Mayor Harold Washington to visitors to the DuSable Museum of African American History.

The DuSable Museum’s animatronic display is typical museum fare, a Hall of Presidents-style flesh-and-gear droid telling the story of the person he portrays. It’s beautifully done, in my amateur opinion.

This Harold Washington sits at the Harold Washington’s desk. Not the desk he had at the mayor’s office. Not the desk where he slumped over at 11 a.m. Nov. 25, 1987 in the middle of a conversation about the school board. Not the desk where paramedics swarmed, trying and failing to revive the city’s first black mayor.

Harold Washington was pronounced dead at 1:36 p.m. at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Ald. David Orr was named interim mayor for a week before, in the early morning hours in the parking lot of a closed restaurant in Wicker Park, Ald. Eugene Sawyer was quietly and secretly sworn in as the mayor of the City of Chicago.

So it’s not that desk. It’s the one Washington used while a state representative in Springfield.

Sawyer edged out another black alderman, Tim Evans, for the City Council vote to fill the post. Evans is now chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court. Orr is Cook County Clerk. Sawyer is dead.

Sawyer was beaten in 1989 by Richard M. Daley, son of and separate only by an initial from the Machine overlord who ran the city for two decades. Daley II would return the city to business as usual for 23 years, a lighter version of his father. Daley I with flower boxes, gay rights and less overt racism.

We now have Rahm, and a robot at Washington’s desk.

Washington’s time in office was marked by lost potential. He was stymied at every turn by the “Vrdolyak 29,” a cabal of aldermen led by Machine mainstays “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak (who spent much of 2011 in prison and looks like he might be headed back) and Ed Burke (still in power, still powerful).

“The Eddies” didn’t control a big enough power block to rule, just to reject appointments, throw the city into gridlock and otherwise hassle the mayor.

He wasn’t always great. One of Washington’s accomplishments was introducing Tax Increment Financing to the city in order to spur the redevelopment of Block 37. It brought a lot of power to the mayor’s office, and gave Daley II and Rahm a great tool for defrauding and draining the finances of the schools.

Despite what the press dubbed “The Council Wars,” Washington was re-elected. He was slowly gaining a handle on the unruly board. Then cholesterol did what the Eddies couldn’t.

At the DuSable Museum, the robot lights up when you press a button. It moves and blinks and nods imperceptibly. It gives a canned speech about history, facts, figures, biography of the first black man to run this city.

And then the speech is done, the lights dim and a robot with Harold Washington’s face powers down, the servos controlling it drooping his head toward the mayor’s desk.

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You are currently reading #771: The Harold Washington Robot by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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