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Timuel Black brought his scholarship out of the ivory tower and inspired generations

When Barack Obama came to Chicago, everyone told him he had to talk to Tim Black, who laid out what Obama needed to know and heed.

Timuel Black
AP Photos

Dr. Timuel Dixon Black Jr. was an historian who lived history.

My friend died in his Chicago home last week, at 102.

Tim was part of the Great Migration, a baby when his sharecropper parents moved to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama. They settled in Bronzeville. “The Black Belt” was the only place they could live. They escaped the Jim Crow South but landed in an equally segregated system, one that persists today.

Tim’s oft-told story is that he was sitting in a South Side tavern celebrating his 23rd birthday on Dec. 7, 1941. Someone said Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

“She shouldn’t drink so much,” Tim replied.

He later served in World War II and helped liberate the horrific Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. “I saw Buchenwald, where human beings had been exterminated systematically,” he recalled in a WTTW interview in 2018. “Burned.”

That molded his lifelong calling to racial and social justice.

Tim returned to Chicago as a decorated veteran, earned a bachelor’s degree at Roosevelt University, then a master’s at the University of Chicago.

In 1955, he saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on television and vowed to work with him, in Chicago and Washington, D.C., where he helped organize the March on Washington for civil and human rights.

The longtime social science professor at the City Colleges of Chicago brought his scholarship out of the ivory tower and infused young people with lived wisdom. He didn’t drive but regularly rode the CTA. Tim was a man of the streets and kept it real.

As did his books, “Bridges of Memory,” an oral history of the Great Migration, and “Sacred Ground, the Chicago Streets of Timuel Black.”

Tim was go-to source of mine on politics, always taking my calls and giving it to me straight.

He advised and collaborated with the powerful but always held them accountable. In the 1980s, he helped push a reluctant Harold Washington to run. Tim was a key player in the historic election of Chicago’s first black mayor.

Later, when Barack Obama came to Chicago, everyone told him he had to talk to Tim. They met at the Medici restaurant in Hyde Park. Tim laid out what Obama needed to know and heed.

In the 1990s, I took my virgin voyage to Africa. My mother regularly traveled there with a group of City Colleges staff and faculty. And with the great Timuel Black.

In his always-distinctive, never-didactic tone, he unraveled and interpreted our history.

Under a blazing hot August sun, he illuminated our tours of Senegal and Mali in West Africa. The ancient culture of The Dogon People. The House of Slaves, on Gorée Island, where Africans were stolen into slavery through the “Door of No Return.” The Timbuktu Library, with manuscripts dating back to the 14th century.

Late last month, I heard Tim was in hospice. Zenobia Johnson-Black, his wife of 40 years, graciously invited me to their home on South Drexel Boulevard. As my mother often says, “You don’t ever have to worry about Tim. Zenobia takes very good care of him.”

He was frail but eager to talk. About the pandemic challenges for small black-owned businesses. About Chicago’s Greek community, one of the largest in the world. About that trip to the Motherland. About the grand dedication, a few days before, of the Obama Presidential Center, on sacred ground in Jackson Park.

Tim couldn’t be there. But the Obama Center, and all that it signifies, would never have come to pass without the living history of Timuel Black.

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