Timuel Black, Chicago historian and civil rights leader, dead at 102

ByCheryl Burton, Liz Nagy, and ABC7 Chicago Digital Team WLS logo
Thursday, October 14, 2021
Remembering Chicago historian, civil rights leader Timuel Black
EMBED <>More Videos

Historian and civil rights leader Timuel Black migrated with his family to Chicago from Alabama in 1919.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Historian and civil rights activist Timuel Black died Wednesday at age 102, his wife confirmed to ABC7 Chicago.

She thanked everyone for their outpouring of support, adding "My husband would say, just do your best to help this world be a better place."

RELATED | Activist, historian Timuel Black looks back at the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Timuel Black's biography is deeply ingrained in Chicago's own history and retold through the people he energized.

"I think perhaps his biggest accomplishment was that he inspired young people to get up, do better, and make the world different," longtime family friend Monica Faith Stewart said.

Black migrated with his family to Chicago from Alabama in 1919. Growing up in the notorious Black belt in the South, he quickly learned the ways of the world, and learned early on the rules to follow, to avoid trouble.

In Chicago, he attended Burke Elementary School and DuSable High School.

"He found it difficult to understand the separation between Blacks and whites," said Joseph M. Harrington, a friend and church member. "He couldn't understand why his family couldn't go to the white churches in his own neighborhood."

RELATED | Civil rights leader, historian Timuel Black celebrates 102nd birthday

Black was 23 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and that led to his service during World War II.

"Until World War II, I couldn't even cash a check at the bank outside the community," Black said. "They - because of their ambitions, because of their concentration - created parallel institutions."

After his return home, he would attend Roosevelt University, and he received a master's degree at the University of Chicago.

In 1960, Black worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when the civil rights leader came to the city to protest housing issues for poor residents living on Chicago's West Side.

Three years later, he would help organize the Chicago contingent of 2,000 people that would attend the historic March on Washington.

"I had to carry that dream in my mind and in my heart," Black said. "I had an obligation to this man who articulated for me, and for many more, the dream of how the world ought to be."

RELATED | Chicago civil rights leader Timuel Black shares lessons from Spanish flu for COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. King became a confidante to Black, and Dr. King's legacy was reflected on Black's teachings and his politics.

RELATED | Martin Luther King assassination commemorated in Memphis on 50th anniversary

"I have to carry that dream in my mind and in my heart," he said. "I have an obligation to this man who articulated, for me, and many more. The dream of the world as it ought to be."

"He felt that each one of us had a responsibility to not look at things as they are, but look at things as they should be, and to work for that purpose," said longtime family friend Monica Faith Stewart.

He was inspired by his parents' attitude that change is going to come. He said the march created an optimism that would shape the rest of his life.

He ran and lost his first campaign for alderman, but he was instrumental in the historic election of Harold Washington as the first African American mayor of Chicago.

"He's fought against classism, he fought against racism," said Carol Moseley Braun, former U.S. senator and ambassador. "He's been on the right side of history as long as I've known him."

Black was a professor of social science for many years at the City Colleges of Chicago. He went on to write several books, including "Bridges of Memory" about African Americans who left the South and came to Chicago in search of a better life, and "Sacred Ground, the Chicago Streets of Timuel Black."

"He was committed to good people and causes all the way through, and never had a price tag on his head," said Paul Carryon, former student.

In 1991, a young activist by the name of Barack Obama wanted to become a community organizer in Chicago. So he sought the advice of Professor Black.

Black would attend the inauguration of the first African American president of the United States.

"He becomes one of the most powerful - if not the most powerful - political figures in the whole world," Black said. "Now, that dream, whew. Very few of us of us could have had that kind of dream personified by a person of color."

SEE ALSO | Chicago Public Library's Timuel D. Black Jr. Digital Collection

Professor Black had abundant pride in knowing that the journey to the White House, traveled to his neighborhood because the Obamas were his neighbors, before they moved to the most famous address in the country.

But Professor Black said, while history was made with President Obama, we still hadn't quite fulfilled the dream of his good friend, Dr. King, for a post-racial society.

"Race has not been overcome. It's still a part of this social society," Black said.

Black, who made a living off of history and would live to see much of it, turned 100 years old in 2018. And while the centenarian had slowed, he never stopped fighting for civil rights for all.

"Tim had 102 wonderful years, productive years," Faith Stewart said. "He planted a lot of seeds. Those seeds are going to grow."

Black said his extraordinary life gave him a feeling of great satisfaction. And he went on to say at this point, a sense of fulfillment as the end of time comes, I feel satisfied that I lived a happy, productive life for myself and others.

"Keep the faith," he said. "Take care of yourself. Go to bed at night and get a good night's sleep and start all over tomorrow."

Statement from Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.

Sadden [sic] over the death of his dear friend, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. Wednesday said Timuel Black, a professor, author, and community activist, was a great teacher and 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. 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.

Statement from President Barack Obama:

Today, the city of Chicago and the world lost an icon with the passing of Timuel Black.

Tim spent decades chronicling and lifting up Black Chicago history. But he also made plenty of history himself.

After moving to Chicago with his family as part of the Great Migration, Tim served in the military during World War II-surviving the Normandy invasion, and fighting across France and in the Battle of the Bulge.

Tim visited Buchenwald shortly after it was liberated, witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust. That experience, along with the racial discrimination he faced in the Army, deepened his resolve to fight for social justice. And after returning home to Chicago, he became a fierce advocate for change through education and mutual understanding.

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.

Today, Michelle and I send our thoughts to Tim's wife Zenobia, and everyone who loved and admired this truly incredible man.

  • Statement from Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton

Today, we mourn the loss of legendary civil rights activist and historian Timuel Black. In over a century of life and service, Timuel Black paved the way for justice and equity through his incredible work.

He will forever be embedded in history as a champion for the downtrodden. Timuel Black was a beacon, helping to guide the city, state, and country in the direction of progress. From his work organizing Chicago for the 1963 March on Washington to fighting for voting rights here in Illinois, he changed the world one step at a time. That spirit lives on to this day and should inspire us all.

Timuel Black was a force. He continued to shine a light on the causes he held close and taught us how we could change the future for the better by understanding the past. Timuel Black was a World War II veteran, an organizer, an educator; most of all, he was a hero.

May we pray for Timuel Black's family and all who loved him during this difficult time. Let us be strong for them the way he was always strong for us. Timuel Black's legacy lives on, may he rest in power.

Chicago Teachers Union statement:

Timuel Black has been an anchor in the most consequential struggles for racial, social and economic justice of our times. For generations, he marshalled his voice, his wisdom, his humanity and his tireless activism to support movements that ranged from the struggle for voting rights for Black and Brown people, to the most impactful civil rights mobilizations of the last 70 years - including the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

His multi-volume history of the Great Migration stands as one of our nation's most important chronicles of the struggles of Black families like his, who made the epic trek to Chicago for greater freedom and dignity.

Above all else, he has served as a central pillar in the abiding struggle for racial and economic equity in the city of Chicago and across the nation. He has been a mentor, advocate and voice of hope for countless Chicagoans and people of conscience, giving his entire life to service that supports the needs of the many and the common good of all.
We mourn Tim's passing, celebrate his immense contributions to the movement, and commit to carrying on his legacy of struggling for dignity and justice for the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden.

Statement from Congressman Bobby L. Rush:

My friend Tim Black spent every day of 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.

"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.

"One of my favorite memories of Tim was being present when he was telling Herbie Hancock about his relationship with Herbie's father and seeing the glean in Herbie Hancock's eyes as he told the story. Tim's enthusiasm as an author and educator was inspiring, and his impact is utterly incalculable.