Chicago historian, activist and cultural icon Timuel Black dies at 102

Black strategized with Martin Luther King Jr., challenged the Democratic Party machine and fought to desegregate housing and public schools.

Timuel Black sitting in a church pew
Activist and historian Timuel Black, seen here at Roberts Temple Church in 2019, died Wednesday at the age of 102. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Timuel Black sitting in a church pew
Activist and historian Timuel Black, seen here at Roberts Temple Church in 2019, died Wednesday at the age of 102. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago historian, activist and cultural icon Timuel Black dies at 102

Black strategized with Martin Luther King Jr., challenged the Democratic Party machine and fought to desegregate housing and public schools.

Timuel Black liked to tell the story of how he arrived in Chicago. When he was eight months old, he looked around at the oppression in his Birmingham, Ala. birthplace and said “shit, I’m leaving here.” His mother said to his father, “that boy can’t even change his diapers — we’d better go with him.”

Pithy anecdote, to be sure. But the 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 to the North for better opportunities. Debris from the summer 1919 race riots weeks earlier greeted them when they stepped off the train in Chicago at 12th Street.

Black, the grandson of slaves, lived more than a century and had a hand in electing the city’s first Black mayor and the first Black U.S. president. He fought Nazis in World War II, which earned him four bronze battle stars. But he came home angry. Returning to racial discrimination radicalized him and led to a life of civil rights and public service. Black was fired from a job for attempting to unionize. In 1960, Black helped found the Negro American Labor Council and worked with A. Phillip Randolph on labor issues. The historian and author strategized with Martin Luther King Jr., challenged the Democratic Party machine and fought to desegregate housing and public schools.

“I am not an intellectual. I’m not a scholar. I’m not an academic. But I have lived a long time. And that does help,” Black, a retired professor from the city college system, said in 2012 when he donated more than 250 archival boxes to the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at Woodson Regional Library, a part of the Chicago Public Library system.

Of course, that statement is unequivocally false. A Chicago cultural treasure, through and through, Black was a walking encyclopedia on Black Chicago. He died Wednesday at the age of 102.

Black wore another title for me and many other journalists, writers, educators and thinkers in Chicago — honorary grandfather. I interviewed him numerous times over the past 15 years. Whenever I needed context, explanation or memories related to an aspect of Black Chicago, I called Black. Interviewing him meant picking him up from his Kenwood home, a task I gladly performed. We ate biscuits at Pearl’s Place and breakfast at Izola’s as we talked about the rebirth of Bronzeville or the legacy of Mayor Harold Washington.

Driving around the South Side, I learned about racially restrictive covenants, the importance of the Hansberry family beyond daughter Lorraine’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” and important moments that shaped the Black Belt. Talking to him deepened my own familial understanding. I, too, am the granddaughter of the Great Migration. Our talks and interviews helped my journey in connecting the dots on housing segregation and how public housing got built here. I learned “Negro removal” and “plantation politics” from him. Black filled in education gaps through pedagogy and lived experience. I am forever grateful.

He characterized Chicago as the political and economic heart of Black America — a quote I love to repeat. Black is the first sentence in chapter one of the “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 the gang’s longtime 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 provide him comfort in hospice. Black knew the people loved and revered him. For his 101st birthday, friends organized a two-day celebration of jazz, panels and storytelling — a beautiful and fitting tribute. Black rooted his scholarship in community, inspiring manifold generations on how to be an artist and an activist. Sitting in circles with elementary school children, Black implored African-American children to have pride and not be ashamed of descending from enslaved people. He often said he descended from the best and the brightest.

And that made Black among our best and brightest. His legions of honorary grandchildren will continue to honor him through our own scholarship, thinking and writing.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her @natalieymoore.