Walter Washington

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For others of the same name, see Walter Washington (disambiguation).
Walter Washington
1st Mayor of the District of Columbia
In office
January 2, 1975 – January 2, 1979
Preceded by Himself (Mayor-Commissioner)
Succeeded by Marion Barry
Mayor-Commissioner of the District of Columbia
In office
November 7, 1967 – January 2, 1975
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Preceded by Walter Nathan Tobriner (President of the Board of Commissioners)
Succeeded by Himself (Mayor)
Personal details
Born Walter Edward Washington
(1915-04-15)April 15, 1915
Dawson, Georgia, U.S.
Died October 27, 2003(2003-10-27) (aged 88)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Bennetta Bullock (1942–1991)
Mary Burke (1994–2003)
Children Bennetta (with Bullock)
Alma mater Howard University
Religion Baptist

Walter Edward Washington (April 15, 1915 – October 27, 2003) was an American civil servant and politician. After a career in public housing in Washington, DC and New York City, he was appointed as chief executive of Washington, D.C. in 1967. He served as the first and only Mayor-Commissioner from 1967 to 1974. He was the last mayor of Washington to be appointed by the President.

Congress had passed a law granting home-rule to the capital, while reserving some authorities. In 1974 Washington was elected as the first mayor of the District of Columbia, serving from 1975 to 1979.

Early life and family[edit]

Washington was the great-grandson of enslaved Americans. He was born in Dawson, Georgia. His family moved North in the Great Migration, and Washington was raised in Jamestown, New York, attending public schools. He earned a bachelor's degree from Howard University and a law degree from Howard University School of Law. He was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

Washington married Bennetta Bullock, an educator. They had one daughter together, Bennetta Jules-Rosette, who became a sociologist. His wife Bennetta Washington became a director of the Women's Job Corps, and First Lady of Washington, D.C. when he was mayor. She died in 1991.


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 1961, when he was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as the Executive Director of the National Capital Housing Authority. This was the housing department of the District of Columbia, which was then administered by Congress. In 1966 Washington moved to New York City to head the much larger Housing Authority there in the administration of Mayor John Lindsay.[1]

Mayor of the District of Columbia[edit]

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

1967-74: Mayor-Commissioner[edit]

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 under congressional supervision. They established 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."[2] (Power brokers such as Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, had supported white lawyer Edward Bennett Williams.[3]) Washington was the first African-American mayor of a major American city, and one of three blacks in 1967 chosen to lead major cities. Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana and Carl Stokes of Cleveland were both elected to their posts in that year, while Washington had a presidential appointment.

Washington led a city that was torn by racial divisions, and also had to deal with congressional hostility following passage of major civil rights legislation. 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.[4] Soon afterward, Washington was faced with 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, Washington 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 refused to listen to him.[5]

Republican Richard Nixon retained Washington as Mayor-Commissioner after being elected as president in 1968.[6]

1975-79: Elected Mayor[edit]

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 taking office 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 Clifford Alexander, future Army Secretary. Washington ultimately won the tight race by 4,000 votes. He 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, who was also African American.

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." 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."[7]

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."[7] During his administration was created the Office of Latino Affairs of the District of Columbia.

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. Barry shifted city finances to the more common accrual system, and he announced that under this system, Washington had left a $284 million debt.[8]

Later life[edit]

After ending his term as mayor, Washington joined the New York-based law firm of Burns, Jackson, Miller & Summit, becoming a partner there. He opened the firm's Washington, D.C. office and built on his network.

His first wife died in 1991. Washington remarried in 1994, to Mary Burke Nicholas, an economist and government official.[9][10] Mary Burke Washington died on November 30, 2014 at the age of 88.[9]

Washington went into semi-retirement in the mid-1990s, finally taking full retirement at the end of the decade. By that 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 of sufficient weight to be reported by 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 (City Hall), and attended his funeral at Washington National Cathedral.

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • 13½ Street, the short alley running alongside the Wilson Building, was designated Walter E. Washington Way in his honor.
  • 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. ^ "LBJ Names Negro Washington 'Mayor'". St. Petersburg Times, via Google News. United Press International. September 7, 1967. 
  3. ^ Frank Rich, New York Magazine
  4. ^ Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood. Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington D.C. Simon & Schuster, 1994, p.62
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ Swanson, Albert (October 2, 1973). "Home Rule for D.C. Due House Test". Baltimore Afro-American, via Google News. United Press International. 
  7. ^ a b Chuck Stone. "A dream deferred; a black mayor betrays the faith," Washington Monthly, July–August 1986.
  8. ^ 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. ISBN 0-9631246-6-8. 
  9. ^ a b Bernstein, Adam (2014-12-05). "Mary Washington, government official and widow of former D.C. mayor, dies at 88". Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-12-29. 
  10. ^ Vitello, Paul (2014-12-12). "Mary Burke Nicholas Washington Dies at 88; Led New York Police Review Board". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-12-29. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Walter Nathan Tobriner
as President of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia
Mayor-Commissioner of the District of Columbia
Succeeded by
as Mayor of the District of Columbia
Preceded by
as Mayor-Commissioner of the District of Columbia
Mayor of the District of Columbia
Succeeded by
Marion Barry
Party political offices
First Democratic nominee for Mayor of the District of Columbia
Succeeded by
Marion Barry