Chicago historian and activist Timuel Black has died at 102
Timuel Black loved to talk about how he got to Chicago. When he was eight months old, he looked around at the oppression in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and said “Damn, I’m leaving here.” His mother told his father, “This boy can’t even change his diapers – we better go with him.
Spicy anecdote, of course. But this point illustrated that the family needed to leave the oppressive clutches of sharecropping and the Jim Crow South. Black arrived in Chicago less than a year old with his parents and older siblings – part of the first wave of the Great Migration in which millions of African Americans flocked North for better opportunities. Debris from the 1919 summer race riots a few weeks earlier greeted them as they stepped off the train in Chicago on 12th Street.
Black, the grandson of slaves, lived for over a century and helped elect the city’s first black mayor and the first black president of the United States. He fought the Nazis in World War II, earning him four Bronze Battle Stars. But he came home angry. The return to racial discrimination radicalized him and led to a life of civil rights and public service. Black was fired for trying to organize. In 1960, Black helped found the Negro American Labor Council and worked with A. Phillip Randolph on labor matters. The historian and author strategized with Martin Luther King Jr., challenged the Democratic Party machine, and fought to dissociate housing and public schools.
“I am not an intellectual. I am not a scholar. I am not an academic. But I have lived a long time. And that helps, ”said Black, a retired professor from the city’s university system, in 2012 when he donated more than 250 archive boxes to the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of African American History and Literature at the Woodson Regional Library, part of the Chicago Public Library System.
Of course, this claim is unequivocally false. A Chicago cultural treasure, through and through, Black was a traveling encyclopedia on Black Chicago. He died Wednesday at the age of 102.
Black had another title for me and many other journalists, writers, educators, and thinkers in Chicago: Honorary Grandpa. I have interviewed him several times over the past 15 years. Whenever I needed context, explanation, or memories related to some aspect of Black Chicago, I would call Black. The interviewer meant picking him up from his Kenwood home, a task I gladly did. We ate cookies at Pearl’s Place and breakfast at Izola talking about the Bronzeville revival or the legacy of Mayor Harold Washington.
While driving on the South Side, I learned about restrictive racial conventions, the importance of the Hansberry family beyond her daughter Lorraine’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” and the important moments that shaped the black belt. Talking to him deepened my own family understanding. I too am the granddaughter of the Great Migration. Our interviews and interviews helped my trip connect the dots on housing segregation and how public housing was built here. I learned from him “the elimination of the negroes” and the “policy of the plantations”. Black filled the gap in education through pedagogy and lived experience. I am eternally grateful.
He called Chicago the political and economic heart of black America – a quote I like to repeat. Black is the first sentence of the first chapter of “The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang”, a book I co-wrote with Lance Williams. In the early 1960s, Black taught longtime gang leader Jeff Fort at Hyde Park High School.
In Black’s final days, tens of thousands of dollars quickly poured in from an online fundraising campaign to bring him solace in a hospice. Black knew people loved and revered him. For his 101st birthday, friends organized a two-day celebration of jazz, panels and storytelling – a fitting tribute. Black has rooted his scholarship in the community, inspiring many generations on how to be an artist and activist. Sitting in a circle with elementary school children, Black implored African American children to be proud and not ashamed to be descended from slaves. He often said he was descended from the best and the brightest.
And that made Black one of our best and brightest. His legions of honorary grandchildren will continue to honor him through our own scholarship, reflection and writing.
Nathalie Moore is a journalist in the Race, Class and Communities office of WBEZ. you can follow her @natalieymoore.