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A city says goodbye to a ‘true treasure’

Hundreds attended a funeral service Friday for civil rights activist Timuel D. Black, who died Oct. 13 at age 102.

The casket bearing the remains of Timuel Black is wheeled to a hearse after funeral service at First Unitarian Church of Chicago on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. The civil rights activist, retired Chicago professor and historian died Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the age of 102.
The casket bearing the remains of Timuel Black is wheeled to a hearse after funeral service at First Unitarian Church of Chicago on Friday.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune pool

In his 102 years, Timuel Black witnessed much of the worst of humanity — from a teacher in his own grade school class who screamed at a white girl because she’d tried to share her book with him to the heaped corpses in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald.

He had every reason to be cynical, but instead, those experiences shaped him and countless people around him for the better, hundreds of mourners heard Friday.

“He had an unquenchable spirit to hope and a tenacity to never quit, and never, ever, ever give up because he knew trouble don’t last always,” the Rev. Michael Pfleger said, giving the eulogy at First Unitarian Church of Chicago on the South Side.

The African American civil rights activist, teacher, author, historian and World War II veteran who died Oct. 13 was remembered, too, as someone who made possible the careers of some of the city’s brightest Black sons and daughters.

“He mentored a young community organizer named Barack Obama and taught him how to build a political base. He helped Carol Moseley Braun become the first African-American woman to win election in the U.S. Senate. He mentored and advised countless men and women and youth,” Pfleger said.

As Pfleger spoke, Mr. Black lay in a charcoal-gray casket, a folded American flag beneath his head. A huge spray of red roses from his loving wife lay at the foot of the casket. Just before the service began, his wife, Zenobia Johnson-Black, weeping, bent her head to his and whispered into his ear.

Mourners attend funeral services for civil rights leader and political activist Timuel Black at First Unitarian Church of Chicago on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool) ORG XMIT: ILCHT401
Mourners attend funeral services for civil rights leader and political activist Timuel Black at First Unitarian Church of Chicago on Friday.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune pool

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin recalled meeting the Blacks 25 years ago when he first ran for his current seat. Durbin, with Johnson-Black looking on, recalled how she had kindly offered to be his driver on the South Side.

“It was a thrilling experience, with a lot of creative driving,” Durbin joked. He has remained friends with the Blacks. He remembered them just before Obama’s inauguration in 2009, when people were bugging him for tickets.

“It was interesting how many friends and how many new friends contacted me for those tickets,” Durbin said. “But I knew where the first two tickets were going to go – to Tim and Zenobia; the reason is, there might never have been a President Barack Obama were it not for Tim Black.”

Durbin said Mr. Black dedicated himself to making humanity better, and “he never stopped working.”

“After every victory, he set his sights on a new goal,” he said. “After every disappointment, he worked to find a better way. Tim Black was the griot on the South Side.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot described Mr. Black as an “icon” and a “true treasure.” Lightfoot said she got a call from Johnson-Black just before her husband died. Lightfoot went to say goodbye, bringing with her a sample of the jazz music Mr. Black so loved — in this case, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

“He was still alert enough to know that I was present,” Lightfoot said, her voice cracking with emotion. “But it was clear that he was entering his journey home. I sat at his feet, the feet of this great man, who had nurtured and cared for so many.”

Pfleger spoke of Mr. Black’s other “great love,” his wife of 40 years.

“If you knew Timuel Black, his life partner and his best friend, his great love, his boo, was Zenobia Johnson-Black,” Pfleger said. “He said, ‘My beautiful, young wife. Wasn’t I smart to marry her?’ He loved him some Zenobia. And Zenobia, thank you for the love, for the support, for the consistent caring you gave your husband up till his very last breath.”

An attendee of Timuel Black’s funeral holds a program that has Black’s picture on it outside the First Unitarian Church in the Hyde Park neighborhood where the funeral of Black, a 102-year-old historian and activist who passed away last week, took place, Friday morning, October 22, 2021.
Hundreds of people attended Timuel Black’s funeral Friday at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago in Hyde Park.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times