Timuel Black and Studs Terkel, two of Chicago’s greatest living legends, visited Shorebank Feb. 11 to talk about their journeys as historians, authors and teachers. Black, 86, and Terkel, 92, are both still active, teaching, writing and passing on their wealth of knowledge. The discussion was moderated by WVON Radio personality Cliff Kelley.
Kelley introduced his guest, saying, “Think of all the knowledge you are going to enjoy. Tim is a native of Chicago and the author of Bridges of Memory, and he has firsthand experience of Chicago politics having sought both city and statewide office. Bridges of Memory is an oral history of the great migration begun during WWI. [It] allows readers to hear the voices of those who left the Jim Crow system of the South to discover both increased freedom and new forms of prejudice in Chicago.
“Studs Terkel prize-winning author and radio personality illuminates the African-American experience in his book Race, in which Chicagoans and others discuss their upbringing, migration experiences, and perceptions of race at different points in their lives. Race contains interviews with a cross-section of Americans, including many who regularly cross racial lines in their work. It’s just a great experience to hear these two gentlemen and what they have lived.”
Terkel responded, “This is the way he spoke quite often in City Council too. Cliff Kelley has a way of talking that is full of humor. I once remember asking Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the bedside of Mahalia Jackson when she was quite ill, “Why do people keep going after 400 years? The miracle that is a black family?”the miracle is the existence of a black family. How can that happen? He said, ‘Without humor, without the laughter through adversity, we’d be lost.’
“I can think of no better way to celebrate African-American History Month than to be here with my old colleague, Tim Black. He and I have done this a number of times but there is always a variation of the theme. Cliff Kelly mention there was a migration, one that came after WWI?”that’s when Tim Black’s people came?”and one that came after WWII, when more rural people came.”
Black said, “Studs asked that I give sort of a background about my life. This is what you might call a legend. I was born in Birmingham, Ala., Dec. 7, 1918. I was about eight months old, and I looked around Birmingham in those days and I said sh?”. And my mother said to my daddy, Dixie, ‘This boy is getting ready to leave here and doesn’t even know how to change his diapers. I’m going with him.’ So my daddy said, ‘I got to go there so I can take care of you. So that’s the story of blacks migrating.’
“The real story, however, is about two months before that, one of my father’s friends was accused of looking the wrong way at a white woman. Looking the wrong way. He was lynched in front of a lot of white people. He was then burned and his bones were sold as souvenirs. Now my father was a pretty aggressive guy; he was a bad-ass-N. He could get away with a lot of things because he had a sponsor, who later became a Supreme Court justice by the name of Hugo Black. And I get my Black name from that family. I never searched very deeply to get my African name. It was so much easier to keep what I had.
“And so we came to Chicago fleeing race prejudice, discrimination and segregation and terror. But also there was need for better quality education and the opportunity to vote, people who had lived in the urban South, Birmingham, New Orleans, Little Rock?”the urban South in contrast to rural agriculture South. There was a need for labor and so the industrialists of the North wanted cheap labor, and they found they could get it in the South with these children of former slaves.
“The Chicago Defender and other urban newspapers encouraged this transfer of place and people running from the dangers of the South were glad to know they could have a better opportunity. When they got here, however, they found that there was race prejudice in the city of Chicago. They were met at the 12th Street Station by friends and relatives and people who would help them understand that living in the north was not going to help. It was called The Promised Land but less than they hoped for. They were restricted by agreement by something called ‘restricted covenants.’ Restricted Covenant was an agreement between landlords and landowners that they would not rent or sell to black folks in certain territories. And so we were restricted by boundaries like 26th on the north and at that time about 43rd Street on the south.
“Because we had been restricted [we] created parallel institutions, parallel economic institutions, parallel social, culture institutions. It was in that community with the advent of Louie Armstrong and many others that jazz matured, coming up from New Orleans. City blues developed, not country blues. Bessie Smith, Ma Raney, they developed. We went to church on Sunday after we’d been out all night on Saturday night.”
This is just a brief summary of Terkel and Black’s exchange. Louis (Studs)Terkel will be 93 on May 16, and Tim Black is 86. Both men have authored wonderful books and are still very popular as speakers. Tim Black’s book is Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration. The foreword is by John Hope Franklin and Studs Terkel.