I am so sad to report that iconic historian Timuel Black passed away yesterday, October 13th, just two months shy of his 103rd birthday. I extend my deepest sympathy to his wife Zenobia, and to his extended circle of devoted friends. He was a true Chicago treasure: historian, veteran, social scientist and political activist, scholar, teacher, civil rights leader and jazz enthusiast. He was born on December 8th, 1918 to Alabama sharecroppers whose parents were once enslaved, and on his 102nd birthday, the University of Chicago Civil Knowledge Project and the Alumni Association organized a special drive-by car parade in his honor. I was privileged to work with him on the successful campaign for Harold Washington to elect the first African-American Mayor of the City of Chicago. He had observed much in his years and was an astute advisor. I last spent time with him just before the beginning of the Pandemic and he was still an astute advisor. He was a wonderful example of living a life of purpose and joy.
In light of last year's reckoning with racial inequity, he spoke with Chicago Magazine about his advocacy for youth "to learn and refine the organizing tools of generations past," stating, "I do this hoping that knowledge and that inspiration will encourage them to feel an obligation, which their ancestors did. Trouble don’t last always. … Carry the message forward." You can find the full digital archive of Mr. Black's interview with The Historymakers here, along with an interview conducted by Maudlyne Ihejirika of the Chicago Sun-Times on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday in the video embedded below. To browse the Chicago Public Library’s digital collection of Mr Black’s speeches, letters and photos, click here.
After attending Burke Elementary School and DuSable High School in Chicago, Mr Black received his bachelor's degree from Roosevelt University and his master's degree from the University of Chicago. He was drafted into the army during World War II, and became a social worker during the postwar era, while teaching at various high schools and colleges. Mr. Black is a pioneer in the independent Black political movement and coined the phrase "plantation politics."
He ran for public office several times, including campaigns for Chicago's 4th Ward alderman, state senator of the 22nd District and state representative of the 22nd District. He has spent his life furthering the cause of social justice, as witnessed in his books Bridges of Memory: Chicago's First Wave of Great Migration, which chronicles Black Chicago history from the 1920s to the present, and Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black, which provides a detailed portrait of his own extraordinary life.
"Chicago and the world lost an icon with the passing of Timuel Black," President Obama said in a statement Wednesday, hailing Mr Black as "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."
According to the Chicago Teachers Union's official statement, Mr Black "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."
Header image caption: Timuel Black on the cover of his book, Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black.