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Walter Washington

Walter Washington
1st Mayor of the District of Columbia
In office
January 2, 1975 – January 2, 1979
Preceded by Himself (as appointed Mayor-Commissioner)
Succeeded by Marion Barry
Mayor-Commissioner of the District of Columbia
In office
1967 – January 2, 1975
Preceded by Walter Nathan Tobriner (as President of the Board of Commissioners)
Succeeded by Himself (as elected Mayor)
Personal details
Born Walter Edward Washington
(1915-04-15)April 15, 1915
Dawson, Georgia
Died October 27, 2003(2003-10-27) (aged 88)
Washington, D.C.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Bennetta Bullock (married 1942, died 1991)
Mary Burke Washington (married 1994–2003)
Children Bennetta Washington
Profession Attorney
Religion Baptist

Walter Edward Washington, (April 15, 1915 – October 27, 2003) was an American politician. He was chief executive of Washington, D.C. from 1967 to 1979, serving as the first and only Mayor-Commissioner from 1967 to 1974 and as the first home-rule mayor of the District of Columbia from 1974 to 1979. He was the last presidentially-appointed mayor of Washington.


  • Early life and family 1
  • Mayor of the District of Columbia 2
    • 1967-74: Mayor-Commissioner 2.1
    • 1975-79: Elected Mayor 2.2
  • Later life 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Early life and family

Washington, the great-grandson of an American Jamestown, New York. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from Howard University and his law degree from Howard University School of Law. He was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

After graduating from Howard in 1948, Washington was hired as a supervisor for D.C.'s Alley Dwelling Authority. He worked for the authority until a 1961 appointment by John F. Kennedy as the Executive Director of the National Capital Housing Authority, the housing department of the then-Federally controlled District of Columbia. In 1966 he took the same position in the administration of New York City mayor John Lindsay.[1]

His first wife, Bennetta Bullock, an educator, former director of the Women's Job Corps, and First Lady of Washington D.C., died in 1991. By this marriage he had one daughter, sociologist Bennetta Jules-Rosette. In 1994, he married Mary Burke Nicholas, an economist and government official.[2][3] Mary Burke Washington died on November 30, 2014 at the age of 88.[2]

Mayor of the District of Columbia

Walter Washington shakes hands with Pres. Richard Nixon after being sworn in as mayor-commissioner in 1973.

1967-74: Mayor-Commissioner

In 1967, at the urging of President Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed a law replacing the three-commissioner government that had run the capital since 1871 with a more modern government comprising a single commissioner and a nine-member city council, all appointed by the president. Johnson appointed Washington to the post of commissioner, which by this time had been retitled as "Mayor-Commissioner."[4] (Power brokers like the Washington Post's Katharine Graham had wanted white lawyer Edward Bennett Williams.[5]) Washington was the first African-American mayor of a major American city, and one of three blacks chosen to lead major cities in 1967. Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana and Carl Stokes of Cleveland were both elected to their posts in that year, while Washington was appointed.

Washington led a city that was torn by racial divisions, both locally and congressionally. When he sent his first budget to Congress in late 1967, Democratic Representative John L. McMillan, chair of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, responded by having a truckload of watermelons delivered to Washington's office.[6] Soon afterward, he was faced with the riots in the District that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Although he was reportedly urged by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to shoot the rioters, he refused. He told the Washington Post later, "I walked by myself through the city and urged angry young people to go home. I asked them to help the people who had been burned out." Only one person didn't listen to him.[7]

Richard Nixon retained Washington as Mayor-Commissioner after his election in 1968.[8]

1975-79: Elected Mayor

Congress had enacted the District of Columbia Self-Rule and Governmental Reorganization Act on December 24, 1973, providing for an elected mayor and city council for the District. Home rule became effective with the first mayor and council on January 2, 1975. Anticipating that new law, Washington began a vigorous campaign in early 1974 for popular election against six local challengers. The Democratic primary race—the real contest in this overwhelmingly Democratic and majority-black city—eventually settled into a two-way contest between Washington and future Army Secretary Clifford Alexander, with Washington ultimately winning a tight race by 4,000 votes. He then won the November general election with a large majority, becoming the city's first popularly elected mayor since 1871. When home rule came into effect the following January 2, Washington was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

"Home rule," however, belied its promise in significant ways. As is still the case today, the Constitution gave Congress ultimate authority over the District. Therefore, some matters remained subject to prior approval of Congress - and Congress retained veto power over many more. Thus, local laws and mayoral authority were continually constrained by national politics.

Although personally beloved by his constituents, who nicknamed him "Uncle Walter," Washington slowly found himself overcome by the problems of managing a newly autonomous, and therefore largely experimental, city government. The Washington Post opined that he lacked "command presence," and D.C. Council Chair Sterling Tucker suggested that the problems in the city were because of Washington's inability as a manager of city services. Council Member Marion S. Barry, Jr. accused him of ""bumbling and bungling in an inefficiently run city government."[9]

The Washington Monthly noted that Washington's "gentle ways did not move the city's bureaucracy. Neither did it satisfy the black voters' yearning to see the city run by blacks for blacks. Walter Washington was black, but many blacks were suspicious that he was still too tied to the mostly white power structure that had run the city when he was a commissioner."[9]

In the 1978 Democratic mayoral primary between Washington, Tucker, and City Councilman Marion Barry, Washington finished third. He left office on January 2, 1979, when the victorious Barry was sworn in. Upon his departure from office, Washington announced that city had posted a $41 million budget surplus, based on the Federal government's cash-on-hand financial system; however, when Barry shifted city finances to the more common accrual system, he announced that Washington had actually left a $284 million debt.[10]

Later life

After ending his term as mayor, Washington joined the New York-based law firm of Burns, Jackson, Miller & Summit, becoming a partner there and opening the firm's Washington, D.C. office. He went into semi-retirement in the mid 1990s, finally taking full retirement at the end of the decade by which time he was in his early eighties.

Washington remained a beloved public figure in the District and was much sought after for his political advice. In 2002 he endorsed Anthony A. Williams for a second term as mayor despite a petitioning scandal that had made Williams a write-in candidate. Washington's endorsement was still of sufficient weight that it was carried in all local news outlets.

Washington died on October 27, 2003, at Howard University Hospital. Hundreds of mourners came to see him lying in state at the John A. Wilson Building, then attended his funeral at Washington National Cathedral. 13½ Street, the short alley running alongside the Wilson Building, was designated Walter E. Washington Way in his honor; additionally, a new housing development in D.C.'s Ward 8 was named the Walter E. Washington Estates.

In 2006, the Council of the District of Columbia approved legislation renaming the Washington Convention Center in Washington's honor. The building, at 801 Mt. Vernon Place NW, is now known as the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.


  1. ^ Matthews, Jay (October 11, 1999). "City's 1st Mayoral Race, as Innocent as Young Love". Washington Post. p. A1. 
  2. ^ a b Bernstein, Adam (2014-12-05). "Mary Washington, government official and widow of former D.C. mayor, dies at 88".  
  3. ^ Vitello, Paul (2014-12-12). "Mary Burke Nicholas Washington Dies at 88; Led New York Police Review Board".  
  4. ^ "'"LBJ Names Negro Washington 'Mayor. St. Petersburg Times, via Google News. United Press International. September 7, 1967. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood. Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington D.C. Simon & Schuster, 1994, p.62
  7. ^
  8. ^ Swanson, Albert (October 2, 1973). "Home Rule for D.C. Due House Test". Baltimore Afro-American, via Google News. United Press International. 
  9. ^ a b Chuck Stone. "A dream deferred; a black mayor betrays the faith." Washington Monthly, July–August 1986.
  10. ^ Barras, Jonetta Rose (1998). The Last of the Black Emperors : The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in a New Age of Black Leaders. Bancroft Press.  

External links

  • FBI Files pertaining to Walter Washington
  • Walter Washington's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
Political offices
Preceded by
Office Established
Mayor-Commissioner of Washington, D.C.
Succeeded by
Himself as Mayor of the District of Columbia
Preceded by
Himself as Mayor-Commissioner
Mayor of the District of Columbia
Succeeded by
Marion Barry
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