Now 102, Chicago historian Timuel Black reflects on lifelong fight for equality

Black History Month
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CHICAGO — At 102 years old, historian Timuel Black has certainly not let grass grow under his feet.

“To be 102, ok, no pain” Black said. “I don’t have any problems except getting older and I just don’t feel any. I’m tired most of the time.”

He’s tired because the centenarian has been working for Black equality since he was a child. Born in Alabama, his parents, sharecroppers, were a part of the first Great Migration from the North to the South. Black was brought to Chicago when he was one.

His parents had plenty of reasons to want to leave.

“To fight back from the Ku Klux Klan, to vote for the first Black congressman, Oscar de Priest, and to be able to have quality education for their children.”

Don’t let his age fool you. His mind is sharp as a tack. Other than an obsession with black coffee and Jazz, Black hasn’t had many vices.

He’s able to recall quite a bit; like the time his father took him to hear Black nationalist Marcus Garvey speak in Chicago, decades ago.

“My father was a Black Nationalist, a Garvey,” Black said. “At the time, Marcus Garvey would come to Chicago and we’d get together outside of Burke School and Marcus Garvey would tell us, ‘why would we leave Africa and why don’t we go back.'”

But instead of going back to Africa, he stayed right in Chicago and has dedicated his life to fighting for civil rights, justice and making sure young Black people understand and appreciate where they came from.

He may not have known what an impact his life would have on so many people throughout the years. In fact, his birthdate, has become quite a pivotal date in history, a few times over.

“Dec. 7, 1918, famous day in history I call it,” Black said.

On his 23rd birthday in 1942, he found himself celebrating with friends at a local tavern listening to the sounds of Duke Ellington on the radio.

“We we listening to Duke Ellington and the words December 7, 1941 kept coming over the radio,” Black said. “Pearl Harbor’s been bombed, Pearl Harbor’s been bombed, well that was interfering with the music we’d been listening to. I turned to George, ‘we shouldn’t have drank so much.'”

Black was soon drafted and landed smack dab in the middle of a segregated Army. Black said African American troops were mistreated and persecuted.

He received four bronze medals from the Battle of the Bulge and came out without a scratch. But internally, he was battered and bruised. Black used that fire in his belly to take on a racist and segregated city. He received a bachelor’s degree from Roosevelt University in 1949, a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and then went on to a teaching career.

While teaching at a high school in Gary, on his birthday, he was inspired by a kindred spirit.

“I turned on the television and heard this young man, in Montgomery, Alabama, repeated what he had inherited,” Black said. “I’m tired is what I felt. His methodology wasn’t what I felt, but I felt so obligated to him.”

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to his soul, as did Malcolm X. Both were fighting for racial equality, but in different ways.

“I was supporting Malcolm too,” Black said. “His method was less possible, if we had used violence in the south, that would have justified the work of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Black was the first to invite Dr. King to speak in Chicago. Later, as president of the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council, he helped organize King’s march in 1966 in Marquette Park.

But what he most remembers happened the night before the march, at the original McCormick Place, before a fire destroyed it in 1967. That’s when Black introduced the king of Jazz to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Dr. King said, ‘oh, there’s Duke Ellington,’ and I walked over and introduced Dr. King to Duke. I was finished, they were so busy talkin’ to each other that was a moment I cherish, those two great human being, I had the pleasure to introduce them to one another,” Black said.

When WGN News sat down with Black in 2009, right before the first inauguration of Barack Obama, he’d just released his third book and didn’t sound much different than he does today.

And now, he’s living through the second viral pandemic of his lifetime. In the first, he lost his baby sister. In this second virus, he said race plays a part and encourages the Black and Brown communities not to let the country’s mistakes of the past prevent them from getting vaccinated.

When asked what he wants his legacy to be, he hesitated, because Black said he’s not quite ready to pull out of the parade.

“I feel that the end is on its way, but I have the feeling of ‘I’ve done the best that I could every day,’ that is my reward,” Black said. “That when the end comes I will leave with hardly no regrets, because I did the best I could.”

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