Walter Edward Washington, the first elected mayor of the nation’s capital since the Civil War and the first African American to head a major U.S. city, died Monday. He was 88.
“He passed away peacefully,” said Howard University Hospital spokeswoman J.J. Pryor. Washington, the great-grandson of a slave, had been hospitalized in intensive care for more than a week. The cause of his death wasn’t immediately available.
Washington had been appointed mayor-commissioner of the District of Columbia by President Lyndon B. Johnson in late 1967.
Five months later, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. caused the city to explode in street violence. Washington later recalled that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover urged him to have looters shot, but the mayor instead imposed a “don’t shoot the looter” policy and personally spoke to angry young people.
“I walked by myself through the city and urged them to go home and help the recovery of people who had been burned out,” Washington told the Washington Post in 1999. He was widely credited with preventing major riots in the District.
“Few men can boast that they received a burning city and left it on its way to recovery,” D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie said in 1979.
When the Justice Department refused to allow an anti-Vietnam War march on Pennsylvania Avenue and a violent backlash was rumored, Washington went to the White House and asked President Nixon to grant a permit. The demonstration was allowed, and 250,000 people marched peacefully.
Nixon reappointed Washington twice, and when Congress approved home rule for the District, he ran for mayor in the 1974 election. He defeated Clifford Alexander to become the city’s first elected mayor in 104 years.
Born in Dawson, Ga., and raised in Jamestown, N.Y., Washington first came to the nation’s capital to attend Howard University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1938 and a law degree in 1948.
He started as an intern at the National Capital Housing Authority but left in 1966 to serve as director of the New York City Housing Authority. Washington returned to the District of Columbia a year later to accept Johnson’s appointment.
His moderate style helped ease the city’s transition from federal control to limited autonomy. When he left office, the District had a $40-million surplus.
“I brought the city forward,” he said after losing his 1978 reelection bid to fellow Democrat Marion Barry in a primary. In an interview that year, Washington told the Post, “What I would like to be remembered for is that Walter Washington changed the spirit of the people of this city.”
After leaving office, Washington practiced law. In the 1980s, he helped get the National Museum of African Art placed on the National Mall, and later worked to establish the City Museum of Washington, D.C., which opened this year.
Washington married Bennetta Bullock in 1941. She died in 1991, and in 1994, Washington married Mary Burke. He is survived by Burke as well as a daughter from his first marriage, Bennetta Jules-Rosette of Leucadia, Calif. He is also survived by a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter.