IN MEMORIAM: Timuel Black Civil Rights Leader and Chicago Historian

“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.

“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.

“‘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 [Zenobia Johnson-Black] said.

“The revered community leader and scholar was 102.

“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.’

“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.

“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.’ (Ihejirika, Chicago Sun-Times, 10/13/21)

Read the full obituary at Chicago Sun-Times

Timuel Black, historian, civil rights activist, dies at 102; Mr. Black, a political and civil rights activist, educator, historian, prolific author and revered elder statesman and griot of Chicago’s Black community, died Wednesday, Maudlyne Ihejirika, Chicago Sun-Times, 10/13/21

Timuel Black Honored At Homegoing Funeral Service In Hyde Park: ‘He Had An Unquenchable Spirit Of Hope’: Black, the iconic civil rights activist and educator, died just shy of his 103rd birthday earlier this month, Maia McDonald, Block Club Chicago, 10/22/21

Timuel Black, civil rights leader and Chicago historian, 1918–2021, Michael Drapa and Max Witynski, UChicago News, 10/13/21


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