Community rallies behind Timuel Black, honoring a life of service

With no long-term health insurance to cover home hospice care, the community is coming to the aid of the 102-year-old historian, author and political and civil rights activist. It’s about giving this elder statesman and griot of Chicago’s black community his flowers while he is still with us.

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98 year old Timuel Black recalls the demonstration in Marquette Park for open housing. Black along with former alderman Dorothy Tillman and Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. were attacked by angry whites. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

Timuel Black, at age 98, chatting about the Chicago Freedom Movement that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Chicago, where an open housing march in Marquette Park drew attacks by angry whites. Black, currently in hospice care, was not far from King when the civil rights leader was felled to the knee by a huge rock.

Leslie Adkins, Sun-Times Media

It’s about giving this 102-year-old statesman and griot of Chicago’s Black community, Timuel Black, his flowers while he is still with us.

The historian, author and political and civil rights activist has been in hospice care since Sept. 28, surrounded by his books and jazz music, at his home in his beloved Bronzeville.

The son of sharecroppers and grandson of slaves was raised there, in what was then Chicago’s segregated “Black Belt.”

A longtime educator, Black is well known as the prolific author and noted expert on the subject of the “Great Migration” that brought his parents to Chicago, after World War I.

He has no long-term health insurance to cover home hospice care. He has his pension, and his social security. Medicare only covers 30 minutes of nursing a day for at-home hospice.

So the community is rallying.


Through the generosity of many — 1,300 donors as of Tuesday evening to a GoFundMe page — he was finally able to get 24-hour nursing care. That care began Tuesday after overnight care had begun last Thursday. Transitioning in comfort and with dignity, he deserves it.

Before that, his wife of 40 years, Zenobia Black, was trying to do it on her own.

For her and for Black’s vast network of friends, collaborators, colleagues and supporters, Black leaving the comfort of his home was never an option.

Then came the day he fell. His wife ran to his aid, but threw her back out trying to lift him. Ultimately, the Chicago Fire Department came to help.

That’s when a hospital bed was secured, and three of his friends begged his wife to let them start the GoFundMe. Black was a humble man, not the kind to ask folks for help with something like this. His wife bucked at the thought.

Friends persisted. He deserves it, they said. She finally agreed.

The page went up Sept. 29, a $50,000 goal immediately met by an outpouring.

They then increased the goal, to $75,000. The page has raised more than $108,000, and it’s been shared 1,700 times.

Black is now getting the best of care, just as planned.

Organizers were Susan Klonsky, who has known Black for some 40 years and co-wrote his 2019 memoir, “Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black”; Lisa Yun Lee, director of the National Public Housing Museum, who has known Black for 20 years, and worked with him on the museum’s oral history archive; and Michelle Boone, president of the Poetry Foundation, who has known him for more than 30 years, and was mentored by both him and his wife.

I’ve never come across a veteran Chicago educator, politico, activist or media personality who doesn’t know and respect this man’s legacy as an organizer in just about every labor, civil rights and political justice movement since 1940.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot visited recently — toting a new record player and jazz albums by Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong, Black’s favorites. He’s been listening to them on rotation.

Transitioning in comfort and with dignity, he deserves it.

Black graduated in 1935 from DuSable High School. Like him, many of his classmates were trailblazers in their fields — Johnson Publishing Co. founder John H. Johnson, jazz musician Nat King Cole, Archibald Carey, Jr., the first Black delegate to the United Nations.

Black taught for many years in the Chicago Public Schools, followed by 30 years at City Colleges of Chicago, before retiring in 1989.

Drafted into a segregated Army in 1943, he fought in two decisive battles of World War II, the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. He participated in the April 11, 1945 liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, which always stayed with him.

He worked with activists Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois in the ’40s and ’50s; then alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s.

Heavily involved in King’s Chicago Freedom Movement, he was president of the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council founded by activist A. Phillip Randolph, and helped organize Chicagoans’ participation in the 1963 March on Washington.

He was instrumental in the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983 — aided by an independent, progressive Black political movement that Black himself pioneered by coining the popular term “plantation politics.”

Black was similarly involved in the election of the nation’s first Black president, becoming trusted counsel to the young Chicago community organizer Barack Obama in the early 1980s, advising him over the course of two decades as he worked his way up in politics.

Once posted, the GoFundMe page immediately was distributed to some 800 members of the Tim Black 100 Committee — established in 2018 to help celebrate this Chicago treasure’s 100th birthday in style. Comprised of such members as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Michael Pfleger, U. of C. President Robert Zimmer and civil rights attorney James Montgomery, donations flowed in.

Then the community heard, and rallied. Many are doing their part to transition this icon in comfort and with dignity. The page is still up. Round-the-clock nursing is expensive.

He deserves it.

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