Constituent Spotlight: Timuel Black
African American Historian Recalls the Passion and Hope that Changed America
Timuel Black’s parents believed in a better world. In 1919, his family migrated from Alabama to Chicago’s South Side seeking job opportunities, a good education for their children, social equality and the voting rights they were denied down South. His parents’ pursuit of equal rights eventually became his own, and Mr. Black went on to change Chicago, America and the world in his many roles as author, soldier, educator, labor leader, civil rights activist, and now historian.
Sharp and active at 94, Mr. Black has now focused his extraordinary energy on advancing the education of Chicago youth and completing his memoir, “Sacred Ground.”
Having lived through most of the major events of the 20th Century, Mr. Black said two memories stand out. The first is the end of World War II.
“I remember marching down the street in France after we won the war, shouting, ‘Vive la France, L’Amérique, vive la Roux!’ and having a sense of freedom.”
His second treasured moment is when Barack Obama was elected president. Mr. Black said he was elated for his young friend.
“We had seen the impossible become possible. When he won, it was thrilling and proved a point: that if you are prepared when a door opens, you can walk through it. Young people all over the world—black, white, brown, whatever—were thrilled because Barack Obama was a demonstration of what was possible.”
A lifelong resident of the South Side, Mr. Black believes a sense of history is missing in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods today. He fears African-Americans are losing hold of their rich culture and could learn from the past.
“Their parents don’t know, the teachers don’t know, and therefore the students don’t know. It’s really a shame,” Mr. Black said.
He feels that students nowadays must have the same passion that their forefathers possessed and create a better sense of community in order to succeed.
“I’ve lived a lot of years. People these days don’t do as much as I would like to see them doing. We were a village. Every child belonged to the village. It was not just mom and dad, aunt and uncle—it was friends too.”
Mr. Black said teachers, too, have a personal responsibility to students.
“Teachers need to understand the background of the student. They have different families that are not as solid and together as they once were. That means local administration needs to concentrate on the minds of those people.”
Black believes it’s a lack of education that contributes to the high amount of crime in Chicago.
“The level of violence has increased in the streets when students come to school with burdens. The village has to be responsible for stabilizing the community, making teachers more responsible for the safety of our students.”
He believes more students are likely to succeed if educators can show them the value of an education. He also believes they must be instilled with a sense of optimism.
“Many young people feel that there is no future. They don’t care about the future other than today. There is no tomorrow.”
Over the years, Black has been a high school teacher in Chicago public schools, a labor leader and civil rights activist. In the 1960s he was president of the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council and organized Chicago’s participation in the March on Washington in 1963. He is most proud of the leadership role he played in winning labor rights for workers in Chicago. His efforts helped establish the Congress of Racial Equality and United Packinghouse Workers of America during the 1940s and 50s.
“The most impactful thing I did in Chicago was learning how to organize groups in labor unions and putting those groups into action.”
He is currently a professor emeritus at the City Colleges of Chicago and even has a street named after him outside of DuSable High School.
Like many 20th century African-Americans, Mr. Black’s family came North seeking job opportunities and improved circumstances. At a young age, he recognized that blacks had to fully commit to finding better opportunities.
“My family left the South because of the inequality and voting opportunities. They were part of the first Great Migration. “
They settled in Bronzeville, which later became the center of the Chicago Renaissance Movement. It was an area frequented by the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
Growing up in Chicago, Mr. Black’s social circle included friends who later became some of our nation’s most beloved artists and leaders.
“I went to school with Nat King Cole. I grew up with Congressman (William) Dawson. Harry Belafonte and I are good friends. He is a good man. I knew Barack before. I had done some work with Michelle. Her family grew up in the neighborhood.”
Over 40 years, Mr. Black has amassed a collection of personal correspondence, manuscripts and important papers from other civil rights activists and historians. They are now available for viewing in a number of Chicago libraries, including the Carter G. Woodson Library, the Chicago Historical Society and the Vivian G. Harsh Society.