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Timuel Black a historian — and part of civil rights history

Black historian author Timuel Black talks about gremigratiduring 207 interview. Phoby Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

Black historian and author Timuel Black talks about the great migration during a 207 interview. Photo by Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

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Updated: March 2, 2012 8:13AM



Historian Timuel Black’s cozy, Hyde Park apartment is a little emptier after some 250 boxes of memorabilia — papers, photos, recordings, a jazz collection — were willed to future generations via Chicago’s public library.

But none of it really left. Nearly a century’s worth, it is still there in the keen mind and memory of the man.

“My mother and father were sharecroppers, their parents, slaves. They brought my sister and brother and me to Chicago a month after its race riots, in August 1919. We were part of the first Great Migration,” says the educator, author, political and civil rights activist, elder statesman and griot of Chicago’s black community.

“My parents and others who fled the South came not only to get a better job, make more money, and get a better education for their children. They came to be able to talk back and fight back if they were attacked.”

Born Dec. 7, 1918, in Birmingham, Ala., Black was raised in Chicago’s then Black Belt, graduating from an integrated Burke Elementary School, then an all-black DuSable High School in 1935, where classmates included Johnson Publishing Co. founder John H. Johnson, and the soon to be famous jazz musician Nat King Cole.

It was during the Depression, and Black would work various jobs after high school, until Pearl Harbor launched America’s entry into World War II and he was drafted into a segregated U.S. Army in 1943. Of many stories from his two-year tour of duty, a poignant one is his visit to the liberated Buchenwald Concentration Camp in ’44.

“The horror was indescribable. I kept thinking, ‘This is what happened to my people during slavery,’ ” he says.

Black returned to civilian life with militant political views. An organizer in labor and social justice movements of the ’40s and ’50s, he worked with activists Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois.

He helped establish the Congress of Racial Equality and United Packinghouse Workers of America, among more than 100 organizations he was to be active in over seven decades. His first marriage, in 1947, lasted 10 years, and produced a daughter, Ermetra Black, of the south suburbs, and a son, Timuel Kerrigan, an acclaimed musician. His son, who was gay, died of AIDS at age 29.

A second marriage lasted another 10 years; and he’s been married 31 years to current wife Zenobia Johnson-Black.

“I can still walk from where I live today to every house I ever lived in,” brags Black, whose memoir with co-author Susan Klonsky, Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black, will be released this fall. Black’s “sacred ground” is the South Side.

Attending Roosevelt University, a classmate was Harold Washington — who some 30 years later was elected the city’s first black mayor, aided by an independent, progressive black political movement pioneered by Black, who coined the term “plantation politics.” Black got his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1954.

He would work alongside the young preacher Dr. Martin Luther King in the ’60s, helping to organize Chicagoans’ participation in the 1963 March on Washington as president of the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council founded by activist A. Phillip Randolph. And he was heavily involved in King’s Chicago Freedom Movement.

Black’s teaching career began in the Chicago Public Schools. He taught at DuSable, Farragut and Hyde Park high schools.

Black entered the City Colleges of Chicago system in 1969 as a dean at Wright College. He was vice president at Olive Harvey from 1971-73; head of communications systemwide from 1973-79; then taught at Loop College until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1989. In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, he was the lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s Black v. McGuffage lawsuit, which charged the Illinois voting system discriminated against minorities. The suit led to the ban of punch card ballots and a new uniform voting system in Illinois.

Black’s two-volume Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Great Migration chronicles black Chicago history from the 1920s to the present, through interviews of great and small who were among the Great Migration. Today, he remains active in progressive politics, phone still ringing from community leaders seeking counsel or candidates wanting use of his heavyweight name. He has experienced none of the illnesses that afflict with age.

His eyes still twinkle behind large frame glasses, his mustache and goatee meticulously trimmed. He plays his jazz records on a record player nightly, and his voice is clear and sharp.

“I listen to these Republican candidates today, and hear them cleverly disguising their racism, pointing to the president and saying, basically, ‘We cannot afford to have a Negro be successful,’” said Black.

And in his upcoming memoir, he writes, “Have there been disappointments? Sure, there have. I’d hoped we’d be farther along than we are. There are throughout our history examples of disappointment, yet we don’t stop struggling. I have been part of a great social movement. My message is: Do not give up our hopes and dreams, nor the activity that makes them a reality.”

The Timuel D. Black Jr. Papers are housed at the Woodson Regional Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature on the South Side.



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