Eugene Sawyer
Eugene Sawyer (2041465864 2bc2900d9a m) (1).jpg
53rd Mayor of Chicago
In office
December 2, 1987 – April 24, 1989
DeputyDavid Orr
Terry Gabinski
Preceded byDavid Orr (acting)
Succeeded byRichard M. Daley
City of Chicago Alderman
In office
February 28, 1971[1] – December 2, 1987
Preceded byA. A. Rayner Jr.[2]
Succeeded byRonald Robinson (interim)[3]
Constituency6th Ward, Chicago
Personal details
Born(1934-09-03)September 3, 1934
Greensboro, Alabama, U.S.
DiedJanuary 19, 2008(2008-01-19) (aged 73)[4]
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Cause of deathComplications from a stroke
Resting placeOak Woods Cemetery
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Eleanor Taylor
(m. 1955; div. 1984)

Veronica L. Smith
(m. 1996)
Children3, including Roderick
Alma materAlabama State University

Eugene Sawyer Jr. (September 3, 1934 – January 19, 2008) was an American businessman, educator, and politician. Sawyer was selected as the 53rd[5] Mayor of Chicago, Illinois after the sudden death of then–mayor Harold Washington, serving from December 2, 1987 until April 24, 1989. A member of the Democratic Party, Sawyer was an alderman, and the second African-American to serve as mayor of Chicago.

Early life and career

Born to Bernice and Eugene Sawyer Sr. in Greensboro, Alabama,[6] the oldest of six children, Sawyer spent summer vacations in Chicago with his aunt during his childhood. Sawyer enrolled Alabama State University, where he joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. During college, Sawyer and other members of his fraternity provided security for Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.[7] He graduated from Alabama State in 1956 with bachelor's degree in chemistry.[8] He had a brief stint as a chemistry and mathematics teacher in Prentiss, Mississippi, before moving to Chicago to do laboratory work in 1957.[9] Shortly after moving to Chicago, Sawyer took a job in Chicago’s Department of Water, where he worked from 1959 until 1971.[10] While working for the city's water department, Sawyer became involved with the Sixth Ward Regular Democratic organization and the Young Democrats (YD) through family friends, becoming the organization president and financial secretary in October 1968.

Chicago Alderman (1971–1987)

In February 1971, Sawyer was elected Alderman of Chicago's 6th Ward.[11] By 1987, he was the longest-serving black alderman on the Chicago City Council.[12] The sudden death of Mayor Harold Washington created a vacancy at city hall. With David Duvall Orr serving as interim mayor, the city council met to select a permanent successor as mayor. Washington's supporters in the city council split, with some supporting Alderman Sawyer, but most voting for Timothy C. Evans.[13] The City Council elected Sawyer mayor in a tumultuous and lengthy meeting. Having received the majority of votes from the council’s white aldermen, Sawyer faced accusations of "selling out" to the white community, which led to protests from Evans’ supporters.[8]

Mayor of Chicago (1987–1989)

Sawyer's inauguration as mayor occurred in the parking lot of a closed restaurant at North and Bosworth Avenues at 4:01 am on December 2, 1987,[14] in an effort to avoid public demonstration. He was soft-spoken, which led to local media to refer to him as "Mr. Mumbles", or "Mayor Mumbles".[8]

Sawyer enacted Washington's budget for the 1988 fiscal year.[15] In January 1988, Sawyer was able to get the council to approve legislation that broke the taxi monopoly in the city, something which Washington had been unable to do.[15]

Despite the division surrounding his selection, Sawyer pushed several initiatives through the city council, including the installation of lights at Wrigley Field and the Clean Indoor Air Ordinance, which banned indoor smoking. Building on groundwork laid under Mayor Washington, Sawyer championed the Human Rights Ordinance, passed in 1988, to protect individuals against discrimination. This was the first Chicago city ordinance to assert the rights of gay and lesbian Chicagoans.[8][10][15]

Sawyer helped spur private development of land surrounding O'Hare International Airport.[15]

Sawyer reached an unprecedented four-year agreement with the firemen's union.[15]

In 1989, Sawyer ran for re-election. In the Democratic primary election, Richard M. Daley, the son of the late mayor Richard J. Daley, defeated Sawyer, taking 57% of the vote to Sawyer’s 40%.[16][17]

Approval ratings

Sawyer was less popular a mayor than his predecessor, Washington, but still enjoyed a respectable approval rating. Nevertheless, polling showed that Chicagoans had doubt in Sawyers his leadership capabilities, as a 1988 Chicago Tribune poll showed that 55% of residents did not think of Sawyer as being "strong, decisive, and independent", and 54% of did not think he was an "effective leader".[18]

Segment polled Polling source Date Approve Disapprove Sample size Margin-of-error Polling method Citation
Chicago Tribune January 1989 61% [19]
Chicago Tribune January 1989 49% [19]

Retirement and death

After losing the mayoral contest, Sawyer lost his reelection bid for Democratic committeeman of the 6th Ward and subsequently retired from politics. After retiring from politics, he became involved in business again.[20] Sawyer was also an active member of the Vernon Park Church of God in Chicago's Pill Hill neighborhood.

In 1998, Sawyer suffered a stroke.[20]

Sawyer died at age 73 on Saturday, January 19, 2008, at approximately 11 PM after a series of strokes and other health setbacks over the previous month.[21][22] Public viewing for Sawyer took place on January 25 and his funeral took place on January 26 followed by burial at Oak Woods Cemetery, where Harold Washington is buried.[10] Sawyer's mayoral papers are available as the Eugene Sawyer Collection at Special Collections department of the Chicago Public Library located in the Harold Washington Library.[23]

Personal life

Sawyer was married to Veronica Smith-Sawyer from September 7, 1996 until his death. From 1955 until 1984, Sawyer was married to Eleanor Taylor.[24][citation needed] Together, they had three children; sons, Roderick and Shedrick, and a daughter, Sheryl Sawyer McGill. Roderick followed his father into politics. In 2011, Roderick Sawyer was elected as 6th ward alderman, the same post which his father had held.

See also


  1. ^ Subordination Or Empowerment?: African-American Leadership and the Struggle By Richard A. Keiser
  2. ^ Chicago Tribune - FOUNDER OF RAYNER CHAPELS - February 12, 1989
  3. ^ Chicago Tribune - FOR JOHN STEELE IN 6TH WARD RACE - February 21, 1989
  4. ^ JET Magazine – Eugene Sawyer, Chicago's 2nd Black Mayor, Succumbs At 73 – February 11, 2008
  5. ^ "Chicago Mayors". Chicago Public Library. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  6. ^ Chicago Public Library – Mayor Eugene Sawyer (1987–1989)
  7. ^ Chicago's Mayors: A Collection of Biographies Of All Chicago’s Mayors By Elaine C. Shigley
  8. ^ a b c d "Eugene Sawyer: 1934 - 2008". Chicago Tribune. 2008-01-21.
  9. ^ Crawford, Jan (December 7, 1987). "Sawyer Grew Up 757 Miles and a World Away From Chicago". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  10. ^ a b c Courtney, Meghan; Fuqua, Dominique. "Biographical Note" (PDF). Eugene Sawyer Mayoral Records Finding Aid. Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  11. ^ "Eugene Sawyer Biography". The Historymakers. January 29, 2003. Retrieved January 1, 2014.
  12. ^ Wilkerson, Isabel (December 3, 1987). "MAN IN THE NEWS; A Calm Voice For Chicago: Eugene Sawyer Jr". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  13. ^ Johnson, Dirk (December 2, 1987). "Feuding Delays Selection of Chicago Mayor". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  14. ^ "Chicago Gains Acting Mayor." Eugene Register-Guard, December 3, 1987.
  15. ^ a b c d e Green, Paul M.; Holli, Melvin G. (10 January 2013). "The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition, fourth edition". SIU Press. p. 216. Retrieved 22 May 2020.
  16. ^ "Election Results for 1989 Primary Election, Mayor, Chicago, Illinois (Democratic Party)". Chicago Democracy Project. Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  17. ^ "Daley Defeats Mayor Sawyer as Chicago Democrats Vote". Washington Post. 1989-03-01.
  18. ^ Moser, Whet (February 1, 2016). "Rahm Emanuel: The Least Popular Mayor in Modern Chicago History". Chicago Magazine. Retrieved 26 November 2022.
  19. ^ a b "Poll finds Daley struggling". Chicago Tribune. September 13, 2009. Retrieved 25 November 2022 – via
  20. ^ a b "Former Chicago mayor Sawyer dead at 73". UPI. January 20, 2008. Retrieved 12 November 2021.
  21. ^ "Former Mayor Eugene Sawyer Dies". Chicago Tribune. 2008-01-20. Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  22. ^ Yates, Jon; Malone, Tara (January 21, 2008). "Eugene Sawyer: 1934-2008". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  23. ^ "Archival Collections". Chicago Public Library.
  24. ^ Chicago Tribune - SAWYER UNKNOWN TO MOST CHICAGOANS - Mitchell Locin and John McCarron - December 3, 1987
Political offices Preceded byDavid Orr Mayor of Chicago December 2, 1987 – April 24, 1989 Succeeded byRichard M. Daley