Few Chicagoans can say they’ve lived through 100 years of change. But historian and civil rights activist Timuel Black can when he marks his 100th birthday on Friday.
In that time, he’s witnessed – and participated in – some of the world’s most pivotal moments. And while many who are lucky enough to reach that age become forgetful, Black is not one of them: He is still able to recall, clearly, exact addresses and dates from more than half a century ago.
It’s fitting that a man who made his living as an historian would live to see so much of it.
Black’s family migrated to Chicago from Alabama in 1919, when he was less than a year old. Growing up in the notorious Black Belt, he recalls the rules his family was instructed to follow to avoid trouble: “Don’t spit on the sidewalks. Don’t talk too loud.”
He attended Burke Elementary and DuSable High School. Later, the bombing at Pearl Harbor interrupted his 23rd birthday.
While serving in Europe during World War II, a visit to Buchenwald concentration camp would cement his passion for working to make the world better.
“I saw Buchenwald, where human beings had been exterminated systematically,” he said. “Burned.”
Black went on to college at Roosevelt University, then earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago before becoming a teacher.
In 1955, he heard the voice Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the television.
“He articulated for me the way we felt, the way we’d felt in the combat of WWII, but continued to be good Americans,” he said.
Black would work with King when he came to Chicago, and he helped organize the Chicago contingent that went to Washington, D.C., for the historic March on Washington.
“The attitude that had been inspired by my mother and father that a change is going to come, the door is going to open, be prepared to walk in. That attitude of optimism that I inherited from childhood continued throughout my life,” Black said.
Working with King wouldn’t be his last chance to help open another history-making door. Though he ran – and lost – his own race for Chicago alderman, he did help Chicago elect its first black mayor, Harold Washington.
“He was a go-to source,” said political columnist and analyst Laura Washington. “He was part of Harold Washington’s inner circle. He was one of the guys who went out and got the money, that got the registered voters, that got the clout to help get him elected. Even then he was the wise old man of politics.”
Washington calls Black a Chicago treasure – she recalls a trip to Senegal and Mali in Africa years ago, when they both taught at City Colleges of Chicago.
“To be able to connect our lives in Chicago and the discrimination and racial injustice that we were struggling with then and now, with that history back in Africa,” she said.
Black is a consummate teacher, with knowledge that comes not only from his research – but also his life.
“So he can talk to you about Martin Luther King and why he came to Chicago, and what he did here and the impact, and it’s not just what he’s telling the kids in the classroom, it’s what he lived,” Washington said. “He could tell you about Harold Washington, he could tell you about Carol Mosley Braun – all the major cultural and political moments in our history, he was there for.”
Another moment he was there for: seeing the country elect its first black president, Barack Obama.
With 100 years behind him – and however many more ahead – Black says it’s hard to describe how he feels about this milestone. But he gives it a try:
“(I) have a feeling of great satisfaction,” he says. “And at this point, a sense of fulfillment. As the end of time comes, I feel satisfied that I have lived a happy, productive life for myself and for others.”
This weekend, a number of organizations are gathering to host A Centenary Symposium on the Life and Times of Timuel Black on Saturday, as well as a 100th birthday party on Sunday.
Black’s memoir “Sacred Ground” is being released in January 2019. You can read an excerpt from the book here. (Note: Copyright © 2019 by Northwestern University Press. Published 2019. All right reserved.)
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