If you ask Timuel Black, who has just turned 100 years old, he’ll say we need more community activism of the kind he witnessed in the Civil Rights movement over 60 years ago.
Black spoke on Jan. 20 at Austin’s Third Unitarian/Universalist Church, 301 N. Mayfield Ave., about his new book Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black.
The energetic South Side historian said he dedicated his life to improving the human condition after serving in the U.S. Army in World War II in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. After viewing the Buchenwald concentration camp after the Nazi execution of 6 million Jews, witnessing racial discrimination in the Army and learning the U.S. had killed millions of Japanese by dropping the atom bomb, Black said that he mused that there must be a better way.
Born Dec. 7, 1918, in Birmingham, Ala., Black was an infant when his family came to Chicago in 1919 the summer of the Chicago race riot, as part of the first Great Migration. He grew up in the Black Metropolis of Bronzeville — his “sacred ground.”
During an interview his speech, Black said that the historic difference between African American culture on the South and West Sides originated in the Great Migrations.
“The first migration came from the urban South. The second was rural people who were pushed off the land and deprived of education,” he said.
“After Lorraine Hansberry’s father’s second court case, Black people were freed up to move around the city from the crowded South Side ghetto. People found they could buy houses more cheaply on the West Side and moved there. They became the foundation of the West Side, and brought the community together.”
Blues music, he pointed out, has a similar cultural difference. The “father of the blues,” W.C. Handy, migrated from Florence Ala., the hometown of Black’s own mother, and set up a publishing business in New York City. His blues had city sophistication. John Lee Hooker and others who worked in the cotton fields sang a rawer, country form of blues, based on rural life in the Jim Crow South.
“It’s sort of the same thing with shanty Irish versus silk-stocking Irish,” he said.
Early in life, Black said, he had great role models. His father brought community leaders like Oscar Stanton De Priest, who served on the City Council and U.S. Congress, and touring jazz band leader Duke Ellington, to visit their home.
“The idea of ‘we shall overcome’ is a legacy my parents left me. Growing up on the South Side, with friends of various cultures on the North and West Side and suburbs, I decided to work to bring people together peacefully,” Black said. “Whatever religion you may embrace, we are part of one world and we have a responsibility to share what we have materially with others.”
Black said he is a member of the Unitarian Universalist church, which recognizes principles of all world religions and has backed many progressive social movements.
Black organized the Freedom Trains that took thousands of Chicagoans to the March on Washington. He also helped get Harold Washington Jr. elected as the first African American mayor of Chicago. Most recently, he has helped lead the move to bring Barack Obama’s presidential library to the South Side.
“It’s my responsibility to share our history with optimism,” Black said in his talk. Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop” speech, he added, “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land. The door is going to open. Be prepared to walk in.”
Responding to audience questions, Black said he was upset at the short prison sentence of six years given to police officer Jason Van Dyke. The CPS officer was convicted of second-degree murder after shooting LaQuan McDonald 16 times. Black urged citizens to hold city, county, state and national officials accountable.
“During the Civil Rights movement, there would have been marches to the mayor’s office,” he said.
Public officials were there to hear him, including Congressman Danny K. Davis and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. People lined up to buy autographed books.
Black’s two volumes of oral histories, Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration and Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s Second Generation of Black Migration, along with his new book, were published by Northwestern University Press. Susan Klonsky, an educator, writer and fellow community activist, assisted Black in writing Sacred Ground.
“I can’t say I know all the answers, but I’m still around to participate as people keep trying to bring justice out of injustice,” Black said, concluding his talk. “We shall overcome.”