Video: We discuss the legacy of Timuel Black with Laura Washington and Shermann “Dilla” Thomas. (Produced by Aida Mogos)
Legendary Chicago historian and activist Timuel Black died Wednesday at the age of 102.
A week ago, Black had entered in-home hospice and a fundraising page was established to help his wife, Zenobia, cover the cost of care.
Black reflected on his life and accomplishments almost three years ago, at his 100th birthday, “(I) have a feeling of great satisfaction,” he said. “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.”
Former President Barack Obama said the city and the world “lost an icon” with Black’s death.
“Tim spent decades chronicling and lifting up Black Chicago history. But he also made plenty of history himself,” Obama said in a statement. “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.”
Black’s family of sharecroppers migrated to Chicago from Alabama in 1919, when he was less than a year old. Growing up in the notorious Black Belt, he recalled the rules his family was instructed to follow to avoid trouble: “Don’t spit on the sidewalks. Don’t talk too loud,” Black said during a 2018 “Chicago Tonight” interview.
He attended Burke Elementary and DuSable High School. 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 in 2018. “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,” Black said in a 2018 interview.
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.
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.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush said Black spent his life “pouring his best into others.”
“As an educator, a community activist, a civil rights activist, a political activist, a confidante, an elder, and a sage, Tim gave his all to all of us,” Rush said in a statement. “He was at the heartbeat of the Black community, the Chicago community, the national community, and the international community.
“From Nelson Mandela’s freedom and election as President of South Africa, to Harold Washington’s election as Mayor of Chicago, to Barack Obama’s election as the first Black President of the United States; from Jesse Jackson’s campaign for President, to Carol Moseley Braun’s election as the first Black woman in the U.S. Senate — Tim’s contributions were felt in every single one of these historic achievements,” he said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he was sad to hear about Black’s death and called Black “a tall tree in the civil rights forest.”
“He was a teacher par excellence. He followed students beyond the classroom. Tim taught them about politics and business science,” Jackson said in a statement. “He was a devotee of Dr. King’s work and those who worked on his staff. 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…one of the rare teachers in the city of Chicago.”
Note: This story was originally published Oct. 13. It has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight: Black Voices” discussion.