Another legendary Black American leader has died. Timuel Black — a notable educator, historian, civil rights activist, author and jazz enthusiast – died Wednesday, Oct. 13, at his Hyde Park home. He was 102.
Black was one of Chicago’s most prolific and respected icons, and his death was announced in a news article by one of his alma maters, the University of Chicago.
“Black, AM’54, is being remembered by the University community and across Chicago for his extraordinary life and career: He marched with Martin Luther King Jr., campaigned for Chicago mayor Harold Washington, mentored a young Barack Obama and helped bring the Obama Presidential Center to the South Side,” the university said.
In addition to being involved in many of the major civil rights and labor movements that took place within his lifetime, Black was a Word War II veteran and lifelong educator who helped end segregation in Chicago Public Schools and housing. He worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., A. Phillip Randolph and other civil rights icons.
Black is survived by his wife of 40 years, Zenobia Johnson-Black, and his daughter Ermetra Black. He was preceded in death by two sons, Timuel Kerrigan Black and Anthony Said Johnson.
“I just can’t imagine life without him. He’s been so supportive and has been my protector, my confidante. I miss him already,” Johnson-Black told the Chicago Sun Times. “Tim left his mark on this city, on his friends who knew him and on those who knew of him, and he would like for his legacy to be an inspiration to people who are trying to make this world a better place, because that’s all he tried to do.”
Affectionately known as Tim, Black was born in Birmingham, Alabama on Dec. 7, 1918. His grandparents were born as slaves but freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. His parents were sharecroppers and migrated to Chicago in search of a better life.
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“My mother and father were children of former slaves, my great-grandparents, products of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Black said in an interview with Sun-Times after he became a centenarian. “I came up in a time when African American men — women, too — were being lynched, the racial segregation so terrible, people were fleeing to escape the terrorism.”
What Black witnessed in his early life on Chicago’s streets, and firsthand at Buchenwald concentration camp, shaped the lifelong activist he would become. He noted the cruelty of Nazi soldiers murdering Jews and compared it to the trauma experienced by his ancestors.
“When we got up to Buchenwald, to see and feel and hear the cries, I was shocked. … I began to feel that this could happen to anyone and that in the long run, this is what happened to my ancestors, in an organized, systematic way. I was angry,” Black said in a 2014 interview. “I made an emotional decision that when I returned from the Army, that most of the rest of my life would be spent trying to make where I live, and the bigger world, a place where all people could have peace and justice.”
Black spent the rest of his life trying to make the world a better place for not only his race but all people. He wrote several books denoting the rich history of Black people in Chicago and even donated his personal collection of more than 250 boxes of historical artifacts to the Chicago Public Library’s Carter G. Woodson Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature in 2012.
“I think it’s arguably the single best collection of material on Chicago African American history that anybody has ever opened,” late senior archivist Michael Flug said at the time.
When news of Black’s death was released, tributes began pouring in, including from former President Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson. “Today, we lost an icon with the passing of Timuel Black. Over his 102 years, Tim was many things: a veteran, historian, author, educator, civil rights leader, and humanitarian,” Obama tweeted. “Michelle and I send our thoughts to his family, and everyone who loved him.”
“RIP Timuel Black, historian, activist and honorary grandfather to me and so many others,” journalist Natalie Moore tweeted.
“An icon. The real deal. A walking history book. I interviewed him over 20 years ago. His commentary at @NCOBPSTweets annual conferences were legendary. He will be missed,” Professor Sekou Franklin wrote. NCOBPSTweets is the official Twitter account of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.
“Dr. Timuel Black is Chicago. He carried the city on his back, spent his entire life fighting for equity, humanity, civil rights & justice for Black Chicagoans,” political strategist and activist Ameshia Cross wrote. “His impact cannot be underscored enough. Today a true leader joins the angels. Rest in honor.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted, “#TimuelBlack, a professor, author, &community activist,was a great teacher&a tall tree in the civil rights.He was a devotee of Dr. King’s work& those who worked on his staff.We all have a profound admiration for Tim Black.He is an icon of rare vintage…I miss him already. #RIP”
Information on memorial services is pending.
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