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Timuel Black, historian, civil rights activist, dies at 102

Timuel Black in 2018, when he was interviewed on his 100th birthday.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

Activist, educator, historian Timuel Black, the revered elder statesman and griot of Chicago’s Black community, was active in every major American movement during his long life and spent his later years telling stories from our nation’s blueprint — in oral and literary form.

“I consider Dec. 7, 1918, a famous day in history,” the lifelong labor, political and civil rights activist said of his birth date as he reflected on his storied life at a celebration when he turned 100.

A retired sociology and anthropology professor with City Colleges of Chicago, a former Chicago Public Schools high school history teacher and a pioneer in the independent Black political movement who coined the phrase “plantation politics,” Mr. Black died Wednesday.

“I just can’t imagine life without him. He’s been so supportive and has been my protector, my confidante. I miss him already,” said Zenobia Johnson-Black, his wife of 40 years.

“Tim left his mark on this city, on his friends who knew him and on those who knew of him, and he would like for his legacy to be an inspiration to people who are trying to make this world a better place, because that’s all he tried to do,” his wife said.

The revered community leader and scholar was 102.

“My mother and father were children of former slaves, my great-grandparents, products of the Emancipation Proclamation,” the Chicago treasure said in an interview with Sun-Times when he turned 100. “I came up in a time when African American men — women, too — were being lynched, the racial segregation so terrible, people were fleeing to escape the terrorism.”

Among those expressing sadness at Mr. Black’s death was Barack Obama, who said “the city of Chicago and the world lost an icon with the passing of Timuel Black.”

The former president’s statement continued: “Over his 102 years, Tim was many things: a veteran, historian, author, educator, civil rights leader, and humanitarian. But above all, Tim was a testament to the power of place, and how the work we do to improve one community can end up reverberating through other neighborhoods and other cities, eventually changing the world.”

When Mr. Black became a centenarian, the University of Chicago had sponsored “A Symposium on the Life and Times of Tim Black,” followed the next day with the Vivian G. Harsh Society’s “100 Years: Music and Memories, Tim Black’s Bestest Birthday Party,” held at the South Shore Cultural Center.

“I suppose, when you live to 100, it’s worth celebrating,” the World War II veteran said then.

The weekend of celebrations was organized by a Tim Black 100 Committee that included U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, U. of C. president Robert Zimmer and civil rights attorney James Montgomery.

Rev. Jackson, writing a review of Mr. Black’s memoir that came out a month later, said: “For 100 years and counting, Timuel Black has been an eyewitness — and a participant — in the movement for social, racial and economic justice in America. He is a historian and a hero.”

When he heard that Mr. Black was in hospice, Rev. Jackson said: “He means so much to me. Tim Black is a giant among us.”

On Wednesday, Rev. Jackson issued a statement, saying in part: “Tim embraced us as his younger brothers and sisters. We all have a profound admiration for Tim Black. He is an icon of rare vintage.”

Mr. Black’s memoir “Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black” was released on Jan. 15, 2019 — the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A prolific author whose sharecropper parents fled Birmingham, Alabama, for Chicago in the Great Migration, Mr. Black made the Chicago Sun-Times’ 2018 list of the 200 most prominent Illinoisans in the state’s 200-year history.

Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church praised Mr. Black on Twitter:

“He sought to make the World a more Just, fair and Better Place. ... Nobody knew more about Chicago’s Black History than him. ... Rest in Power my friend.”

Born on Pearl Harbor Day, Mr. Black and his family arrived in Chicago — which he called “one of the greatest cities in the world” — just a month after the 1919 race riots during the nation’s “Red Summer.” White mobs invaded Black neighborhoods — 38 people were killed, 520 injured, 1,000 left homeless.

Mr. Black’s family settled in the city’s densely populated “Black Belt”— now Bronzeville — where Blacks were confined, due to restrictive covenants forbidding them from moving into white neighborhoods.

“There were two waves of Great Migrations. My parents were part of the first wave around World War I, when industrialists enticed African Americans north for cheap labor. The second wave occurred around World War II, when people were pushed off the land by agricultural technology,” said Mr. Black, an authority on the 55-year phenomenon in which six million Blacks left the South for the North and West between 1915 and 1970.

“They fled the South for better opportunities — education, jobs, housing, the right to vote. Instead, they were ghettoized by landlords determined not to rent or sell to Negroes. By the mid-’50s, the population in what was called the Black Belt was 84,000 per square mile — four times the 23,000 density of adjoining white communities,” Mr. Black recounted.

“It wasn’t until 1940, when Carl Hansberry, father of Lorraine Hansberry, fought the restrictive covenants with ‘Hansberry vs. Lee’ — taking it all the way to the Supreme Court — that the barriers of segregation were broken in Woodlawn. ‘Shelley vs. Kraemer’ in 1948 then cleared the way for people to leave the ghetto,” he said, ever the professor.

Mr. Black wrote two seminal volumes of oral histories on the subject. The 2003 “Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Great Migration,” compiled conversations with Great Migration descendants, among them the father of jazz musician Herbie Hancock and the mother of former Obama White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. The 2007 “Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s Second Generation of Black Migration” centered on those who were teenagers during the Civil Rights Movement.

“Clearly, the most important thing that has happened in this country has been the migration of African Americans from the South into places like Chicago. Timuel Black’s life was shaped by those stories,” Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture — now secretary of the Smithsonian Institution — told the Sun-Times on Black’s 100th birthday.

“Here is someone who has lived his whole life trying to make Chicago better, working in labor, in education, in civil rights,” Bunch said. “He has dedicated his life to fighting for fairness for the African American community. What is really important to me is that Tim is also the keeper of the flame. He keeps the history of Black Chicago alive, reminding us that civil rights is an ongoing struggle.”

Timuel Black giving a historical tour along 35th Street in 2001 outside the old Supreme Life Building.
Sun-Times file

The youngest of three children, Mr. Black attended an integrated Burke Elementary School before graduating in 1935 from all-Black DuSable High, where his classmates included Johnson Publishing Co. founder John H. Johnson, singer Nat King Cole, and Archibald Carey Jr., who was the first African American delegate to the United Nations.

In 1952, Mr. Black obtained his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Roosevelt University, one of the few colleges open to Blacks at the time. His classmates included Harold Washington, who 30 years later would be elected Chicago’s first Black mayor, with the help of the independent, Black political movement Mr. Black pioneered. Mr. Black got his master’s degree in sociology and history from the University of Chicago in 1954.

His life of social activism began as a teenager during the Great Depression.

After high school, he held varied jobs to help his family — from field representative for the Metropolitan Burial Society, to store clerk. The latter job provided his first experience with labor organizing, when he and co-workers seeking better wages formed a chapter of the Retail Clerks Union. He walked his first picket line in 1931.

In 1999, Mr. Black reflected on the year 1937 in an essay for the Sun-Times’ “100 Years in 100 Days” series, writing: “On June 22, I was among thousands packing the 8th Regiment Armory, historic home of an all-Back Illinois National Guard unit, to hear Chicago’s own Benny Goodman band, which included two of America’s greatest Black jazz musicians: pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Goodman just a year earlier was the first white bandleader to include Black musicians in his ensemble.

“I was a recent DuSable High School graduate working at a jewelry store on 47th Street. My friends and I went without dinner to make it to the Armory in plenty of time for the jazz event. That same evening, just a few blocks away at Comiskey Park, another earthshaking event took place as Black boxer Joe Louis beat Jim Braddock for the heavyweight championship of the world. What a night!

“When we heard that Louis had knocked out Braddock in the eighth round, we went crazy. It was even sweeter because his victory came just a year after Louis’ defeat by Max Schmeling, a product of Hitler’s Germany. That had cast a pall over the entire Black community of Chicago.”

Four years after that memorable experience, on the morning of his 23rd birthday, Japan launched a surprise strike at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, triggering America’s entry into World War II. Mr. Black was drafted into a segregated Army in 1943, serving in the 308th Quartermaster Railhead Company, which provided weapons, supplies and food to combat soldiers.

While enduring racism in the military during his two years of service, he’d participate in two of the war’s decisive battles — the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge — as well as the liberation of Paris, earning four Battle Stars and the French Croix de Guerre.

“We went all the way from Normandy up onto the front line of the extermination camps,” he said in that interview on his 100th birthday. “At Buchenwald concentration camp, I saw human beings systematically being cremated.”

In a 2012 Sun-Times interview, Mr. Black expounded on what he saw when liberating Buchenwald: “The horror was indescribable. I kept thinking, ‘This is what happened to my people during slavery.’”

He spoke of that experience again in an interview with the University of Chicago in October 2014: “I was angry. I made an emotional decision that, when I returned from the Army, that most of the rest of my life would be spent trying to make where I live and the bigger world a place where all people could have peace and justice.”

He returned to civilian life with militant views, working as a social worker, high school teacher and as an organizer — with a prominent role in just about every labor, civil rights and political justice movement of the next six decades.

He worked with activists Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois in the 1940s and 1950s, and alongside King in the 1960s. He helped establish the Congress of Racial Equality and the United Packinghouse Workers of America.

Mr. Black was married three times, with a daughter, Ermetra Black, and son, Timuel Kerrigan, from his first marriage, which ended after 10 years. Kerrigan, a musician, died of AIDS at 29, which led Mr. Black to become an advocate for AIDS victims. His second marriage also lasted 10 years.

He and third wife Zenobia Johnson-Black had been married since 1981, and weathered tragedy as their family fell victim to Chicago’s violence in 2002. That’s when Johnson-Black’s son, Anthony Said Johnson, 31, was shot and killed by robbers on the South Side.

Mr. Black enjoyed friendships with some of the nation’s most iconic leaders, from Dr. King to Obama. He first met King in 1955, recalling in that October 2014 U. of C. interview that he was watching TV when he saw “this good-looking young man in Montgomery, Alabama … I thought, he articulates the feelings that I have,” Mr. Black said.

“And I got on a plane and went to Montgomery, which is where I met Martin Luther King. With his courage, charisma and academic training, it was the kind of leader that I would like to follow.”

A 1965 photo of Timuel Black (far right) with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (far left). Black activists demonstrated for open housing with King in Marquette Park.
Sun-Times file

Mr. Black was among a group from Hyde Park’s First Unitarian Church to invite King for his first major Chicago speech — in 1956, at U. of C.’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel — and he worked closely with the young preacher as the Civil Rights Movement heated up, becoming a trusted adviser.

In 1960, he helped organize the Rainbow Beach “wade-ins” that succeeded in integrating that public beach a year later. As president of the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council founded by activist A. Phillip Randolph, he spearheaded participation in the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — leading two “Freedom Trains” of 3,000 Chicagoans to D.C.

It was a watershed moment. The largest civil rights rally of that time and the first to be covered live on TV, the march was credited with creating the momentum for passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In an August 1993 Sun-Times story, Mr. Black spoke of being at the Lincoln Memorial for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “The highlight was the almost systematic rise in his voice as he enunciated the grievances. The crowd was pushing him on. Then, of course, when he got to the ‘I have a dream,’ the crowd was just crying.”

When King and the SCLC announced plans to expand their civil rights activities to the North, Mr. Black became heavily involved in the Chicago Freedom Movement. It brought King to the most segregated U.S. city to fight housing discrimination as the Great Migration was ebbing.

“Working with Dr. King was a magnificent experience,” Mr. Black said on his 100th birthday. “This brilliant, articulate young man didn’t have to do this. But he was determined and dedicated to bring change in a way that frustrated the opposition. They didn’t know exactly how to handle it when they beat you up, and you said, ‘God bless you.’ ”

In an August 2016 Sun-Times story marking the 50th anniversary of King’s 1966 march in Marquette Park, he said: “There were people who had been with Dr. King in the South who tried to warn him against going into neighborhoods like Cicero or Marquette Park, knowing what was going to happen. Dr. King said he just had to do it.”

Marching close behind when King was struck in the head by a rock or brick, Mr. Black said. “That’s when I said to myself, ‘If one of them knock me with a brick, this nonviolent movement is over.’ A lot of us said this was the worst darn thing we had ever seen. A lot of people said they couldn’t take the nonviolent movement any more after that.”

Mr. Black spent most of his life working to fulfill King’s dream. For nearly 30 years, he was a social worker and teacher at Farragut, DuSable and Hyde Park high schools, fighting segregation and discrimination within the school system and helping establish the Teachers Committee for Quality Education. He went to City Colleges of Chicago in 1969, initially as a dean at Wright College. He was vice president at Olive Harvey from 1971 to 1973, and head of communications systemwide from 1973 to 1979. Then he taught cultural anthropology at Loop College until his retirement in 1989.

In 1994, Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett wrote of Mr. Black: “Tim was of a generation that viewed education not only as a vehicle for personal elevation but also as instrument for a people’s liberation … Whenever there was a good crusade against Jim Crow housing, segregated public beaches, job discrimination or the shortchanging of Black students in public schools, there was Tim Black.

“When Black schoolchildren were being deliberately segregated and denied adequate facilities because of the high-handed actions of school Supt. Benjamin Willis, a group made up mostly of unknowns, such as Tim Black, took the initiative. In 1963, their protest led to a historic one-day school boycott by 250,000 or more students.”

Mr. Black ran unsuccessfully several times for public office. In 1963, taking on Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine in a run for Fourth Ward alderman, he got national attention by branding Daley a purveyor of “plantation politics.”

Timuel Black in 1978.
Sun Times file

In 1979, Chicago’s Black community helped oust Mayor Michael Bilandic by voting overwhelmingly. But by 1982, the Mayor Jane Byrne had angered that community with what were seen as racially insensitive appointments.

Seeking a Black candidate to run against Byrne, Mr. Black co-chaired the People’s Movement for Voter Registration and Education, leading efforts that registered more than 250,000 voters to get Washington to run.

“As a congressman, Harold was well-respected and liked across racial and political lines,” Mr. Black said. “But he wasn’t interested in running. He told us if we registered 200,000 new voters and raised $1 million, he’d consider it. So we did. I called him and said, ‘What are you gonna do now?’ He said, ‘I guess I’m running.’”

Similarly, Mr. Black was an adviser in the campaigns of many of Chicago’s Black elected officials, including Carol Moseley Braun, elected in 1992 as the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.

After the 2000 presidential election, Mr. Black became lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s “Black vs. McGuffage” lawsuit that accused Illinois’ voting system of discriminating against minorities. That led to a uniform voting system in Illinois and a ban of punchcard ballots.

Mr. Black was also a counsel to then-Sen. Obama when he ran for president in 2008. They’d become friends when Obama was a young community organizer in the early 1980s.

In a tribute to Mr. Black on his 100th birthday, Obama wrote: “I met Tim just after I moved to Chicago. We sat across from each other at Medici on 57th — the rookie South Side organizer on one side … and the veteran South Side historian on the other. And it was during that first conversation that I learned of Tim’s deep well of empathy … And I was inspired by that.

“Because he wanted to talk about how to make life better for people all across the city, how to bring about greater equality,” Obama wrote. “And, perhaps the most important part, after talking about it, he gets out there and does something about it, rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.”

Former President Barack Obama greeting Timuel Black during a meeting in 2018 at the Obama Foundation’s headquarters in Hyde Park.
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Mr. Black donated a collection of more than 250 boxes of personal photographs, correspondence, manuscripts, speeches, audiovisuals, clippings, programs and other memorabilia to the the Chicago Public Library’s Carter G. Woodson Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, unveiled in 2012.

Mr. Black said he’d learned from his parents never to throw anything away, and that his parents had kept meticulous family records in their Bible, tucking away everything from birth certificates to the schoolwork he and his older brother and sister had done.

The late Michael Flug, Harsh’s senior archivist, said of Mr. Black’s donation: “I think it’s arguably the single best collection of material on Chicago African American history that anybody has ever opened. ... Tim was involved in hundreds of different organizations in labor rights, civil rights, women’s rights, education initiatives, and he’s a jazz enthusiast, so there is a fabulous jazz collection.”

For decades, Mr. Black lived in the 4900 block of South Drexel Avenue, in the general area where he grew up, and well into his late 90s would conduct tours of his beloved Bronzeville for the U. of C.

Mr. Black remained active in progressive politics well into his late 90s. At 100, his eyes still twinkled behind large-frame glasses, His mustache and goatee were always meticulously trimmed. And he still played his jazz records nightly.

In recent years, he joined the U. of C.-led Community Advisory Board, working to bring the Barack Obama Presidential Library to Jackson Park.

Timuel Black recalls the demonstration in Marquette Park for open housing during an interview with the Sun-Times in 2016.
Sun-Times file

Mr. Black lamented that Black History Month was losing luster with younger generations, telling Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell in 2015: “As falling apart as our young people are today, they need information and inspiration more than ever. It frightens me. [But] when I put it on their minds, they are absolutely thrilled. They are excited to go back and talk to their grandparents and great-grandparents. That’s history.”

In 2013, he told the Sun-Times, “Every day that I’m here, I think, ‘What am I going to do tomorrow?’”

Of race relations, he wrote in his memoir: “I’d hoped we’d be farther along than we are.

“There are throughout our history examples of disappointment, yet we don’t stop struggling. I have been part of a great social movement. My message is: Do not give up our hopes and dreams, nor the activity that makes them a reality.”

Timuel Black celebrates his 102nd birthday with family and dozens of friends and well-wishers cheering from a car caravan traveling past his Bronzeville apartment in December last year.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file
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