A two-year effort by the University of Illinois at Chicago Library to chronicle the tenure of Chicago’s longest-serving mayor through videotaped interviews with former presidents, city officials and others has been completed.
The Richard M. Daley Oral History Project consists of 45 interviews including candid discussions with former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, chiefs of staff, political advisors, administration officials and family.
The interviews took place from 2017 to 2019 following the former mayor’s decision to make UIC the repository for his extensive collection of papers and artifacts amassed during his 22 years as mayor.
Daley’s donated papers have been available since 2018 to researchers and students in the Special Collections and University Archives of the Richard J. Daley Library, named after his father, who served 21 years as mayor.
Due to logistical issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the library is not currently open to researchers but a website dedicated to the Daley papers is expected to be up and running this fall. The interviews and associated transcripts are available online here.
The videotaped interviews and documents will be part of a class offered this fall for Honors College students. The class, “The Daley’s Chicago: From Midcentury to Global City,” will be taught by David Greenstein, lecturer in Special Collections and University Archives.
“These oral histories will enable students to analyze first-hand accounts of Chicago’s political history,” Greenstein said. “Right now, it’s especially important for student researchers to have access to primary source evidence online, so this collection is a valuable resource that will enhance our coursework with the Library’s Daley papers.”
The class will explore the development of the city from the mid-20th century until 2011, when Richard M. Daley chose not to run again. The papers of his father, Richard J. Daley, who served in office from 1955 until his death in 1976 and who helped create UIC, previously were donated to UIC by his family.
Before Richard M. Daley was elected to his first term as mayor in 1989 he had served as a delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1970, Illinois state senator from 1973 to 1980 and Cook County State’s Attorney from 1981 to 1988. In 1983, he lost his first bid for mayor to Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor.
The interviews contain discussions related to the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, or CAPS, education reform and the privatization of city assets such as the Chicago Skyway and parking meters. In addition, among the interviews are discussions about Daley’s plan to transform Chicago into an international city by building public housing projects as mixed-use developments, eliminating Meigs Field and developing Millennium Park.
During an interview with Obama, the former president said that among Daley’s strengths was his ability to pay the same attention to detail and maintain the same leadership qualities as his father while striving for greater equity and continuing the reforms that Washington had started.
“So, he wins over a big chunk of the African American community, is able to hang onto his traditional base, and that proves to be a pretty formidable organization. And I think that his willingness to adapt to new times is one of the reasons he ended up being so successful as a mayor during his tenure,” Obama said in the interview conducted by Peter Cunningham, Daley’s former speechwriter and senior advisor.
Obama notes that among Daley’s failures was the price he had to pay for a legacy of segregation and racism in the city.
“When you think about Mayor Daley’s failures, then it has to do with the fact that he was never able to tackle some of the legacies of segregation and disparities that existed in the city as much as he probably wanted to, and as much as I think we all wish had happened. It is something that continues to haunt the city,” Obama said.
Among the interviews available to the public is one with Arne Duncan whom Daley appointed to serve as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools. Duncan, who later became U.S. Secretary of Education under Obama, said in the video that Daley’s mantra to him was always to “do the right thing by children.”
Also included is an audio interview with former President George W. Bush who, while a Republican, had a good working relationship with the Democratic mayor and admired him for his dedication to Chicago. What drew the two men closer was the interest both shared in education reform.
“He reminded me of the kind of person that you could find common interests with and work for the common good,” Bush said. “My relationship with him was very genuine, more so than with any other big city mayor.”
The Richard M. Daley Oral History Project is a significant addition to the extensive Daley family holdings preserved and available for research by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Special Collections and University Archives. These holdings include the Richard M. Daley papers, the Richard J. Daley collection, the Richard J. Daley oral history collection and the William M. Daley papers.
“The Richard M. Daley Oral History Project offers researchers rare insight into the inner workings of the City of Chicago and reveals much about the character of Richard M. Daley and the decision-making process he brought to the Office of the Mayor. We are grateful to the Daley family for the opportunity to share the unique perspectives and stories of those who worked closely with the former mayor through his more than 20 years in the office,” said Mary Case, university librarian and dean of libraries.
Along with the Daley collections, the Special Collections and University Archives department houses rare books, printed materials, manuscript collections and papers from other elected officials and political organizations. These include papers from Chicago Mayors Martin Kennelly (1947-1955) and Michael Bilandic (1976-1979), as well as former Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones, Jr., and State Rep. and Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka.
For more information, visit the Library’s Special Collections website.