Legendary historian and civil rights icon Dr. Timuel Black passed away yesterday at 102. His wife, Zenobia Johnson-Black, confirmed his death early Wednesday afternoon, saying, “I hope to celebrate his life every day of my life. He was trying to make this world a better place. And that’s what he urged others to do. So that’s how I hope he’ll be remembered.”
Dr. Black entered the world as a survivor. As an infant, he survived the pandemic of 1918. The grandson of slaves, his family migrated to Chicago from Alabama shortly after the deadly race riots. He was one of the first graduates of DuSable High School. After graduation, he joined the Armed Forces, where he fought in World War II. He endured many encounters with racism that shaped his thoughts on justice and equality.
He attended Roosevelt University upon his return from active duty, eventually earning a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. He was a wealth of knowledge known as “Baba,” a term used in southern Africa, as a show of respect, and “Griot,” which means an oral historian in West Africa. Dr. Black spent his life chronicling history for nearly eight decades. As a young boy, he worked for the Chicago Defender as a newspaper carrier during the Great Depression. In addition, he was an educator who worked as a professor with the City Colleges of Chicago and a history teacher with CPS.
From marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to working with the late Mayor Harold Washington, Dr. Timuel Black was an activist who consistently fought for equality. Timuel Black served as the Chicago chair of the historic 1963 March on Washington; organized the “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work” campaign, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), coined the phrase “Plantation Politics,” and was the lead plaintiff in Black v. McGuffage. This lawsuit charged the Illinois voting system with systemic discrimination against minorities.
Tributes to the icon continued to pour in on social media. Former President Barack Obama said, “Today, the city of Chicago and the world lost an icon with the passing of Timuel Black,” former President Obama said in a statement. “Tim spent decades chronicling and lifting up Black Chicago history. But he also made plenty of history himself. 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.”
Lt. Governor Stratton said in a statement, “Today, we mourn the loss of legendary civil rights activist and historian Timuel Black. In over a century of life and service, Timuel Black paved the way for justice and equity through his incredible work. He will forever be embedded in history as a champion for the downtrodden. Timuel Black was a beacon, helping to guide the city, state, and country in the direction of progress. From his work organizing Chicago for the 1963 March on Washington to fighting for voting rights here in Illinois, he changed the world one step at a time. That spirit lives on to this day and should inspire us all.
Timuel Black was a force. He continued to shine a light on the causes he held close and taught us how we could change the future for the better by understanding the past. Timuel Black was a World War II veteran, an organizer, an educator; most of all, he was a hero. May we pray for Timuel Black’s family and all who loved him during this difficult time. Let us be strong for them the way he was always strong for us. Timuel Black’s legacy lives on. May he rest in power.”
Congressman Bobby L. Rush said in a statement, “My friend Tim Black spent every day of his life pouring his best into others. As an educator, a community activist, a civil rights activist, a political activist, a confidante, an elder, and a sage, Tim gave his all to all of us. “He was at the heartbeat of the Black community, the Chicago community, the national community, and the international community. From Nelson Mandela’s freedom and election as President of South Africa to Harold Washington’s election as Mayor of Chicago to Barack Obama’s election as the first Black President of the United States; from Jesse Jackson’s campaign for President to Carol Moseley Braun’s election as the first Black woman in the U.S. Senate — Tim’s contributions were felt in every single one of these historic achievements. One of my favorite memories of Tim was being present when he was telling Herbie Hancock about his relationship with Herbie’s father and seeing the glean in Herbie Hancock’s eyes as he told the story. Tim’s enthusiasm as an author and educator was inspiring, and his impact is utterly incalculable.”
On Facebook, Saint Sabina Pastor Rev. Michael L. Pflieger said, “Chicago lost an icon today. Timuel Black was a historian, activist, and friend. He sought to make the world a more just, fair, and better place… Nobody knew more about Chicago’s Black History than him. … Rest in Power, my friend.”
Ambassador/ Senator Carol Moseley Braun said, “Timuel Black has lived an impactful 102 years. He gave to his community and made a big difference in a lot of people’s lives. And I’m just hopeful that he can be remembered for the contributions that he made, that he gave more than he took, and that he, hopefully, will be part of the city’s legacy”.
Candidate for Illinois Secretary of State, Pat Dowell, said, “Timuel Black was a towering intellect, passionate leader, and generous mentor. I just visited with him on Monday. He was a trusted advisor and dear friend. We worked closely on education issues as he was a member of the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition. He was the driving force behind the landmark designation of the school. One of my proudest moments as Alderman was passing legislation that created a street sign in his honor on State at 49th Street. I was humbled that he enthusiastically served as a chairman of my campaign for Illinois Secretary of State. My sincere condolences to his wife, Zenobia, and all who loved and admired him. We lost a pillar of our community today. His legacy will live on. I was an unlikely politician. I started off as a lawyer. I’ve known Tim since my days in the United States Attorney’s Office, and the first time we worked together was something called UBBI — United Black Voters of Illinois — for Thompson. We supported Republicans. We all supported (Gov.) Jim Thompson and he won the election. Tim was part of a coterie of Black voters, people who identified as civil rights activists, to back this Republican candidate, which in those days was something like taking your life in your hand because you were up against the Daley machine. Tim was fearless. I’m grateful to him for that leadership.”
He continued his activism, mentoring younger generations. He reflected on the racial uprising and protests of 2020 in a February interview with USA Today, saying,
“Though the struggle goes on, I am encouraged by younger generations, in particular, across races and gender. They’re fighting to make things better economically, socially, politically for everyone, not just for themselves …Do I think there’s a continuation of the theme that we had with Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders across the world?” he said. “The idea is, be optimistic and believe in the song that we sang at the March on Washington and other places throughout the world: ‘We shall overcome. We shall overcome. One day…That is the legacy that my generation, following the inheritance of my ancestors, have continued to believe. That this world can be and ought to be a world of safety and comfort for all people … as expressed in the Constitution of the United States, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men, and gradually to human beings, are created equal, are endowed. So that is encouraging and inspires this old man to continue the movement.”
His life’s work and accomplishments were most recently honored by the Illinois House of Representatives and in the “Living Legends” Mural at Jesse “Ma” Houston Park on 50th and Cottage Grove. Timuel D. Black, Jr., passed away after spending his last days in hospice care in his Bronzeville home. Last week a GoFundMe was organized to help with his medical expenses. The campaign raised over $100,000 and helped arrange for round-the-clock care until his passing.
His legacy and his contributions to Black History and Culture will endure forever.