Timuel Black honored for a life of achievement

Timuel Black blows out the candles on a cake celebrating his 100th birthday. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff Writer

“The Life and Times of Timuel D. Black: A Centenary Symposium” was full of life and love and adoration and affection, with panels appropriately academic and warm to honor a great public historian, one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation, a man who made a name for himself as a gregarious, unyielding warrior for equal rights and justice in his country.

People who live to be 100 see a lot of history unfold. Few of them become historical figures or as apt and keen chroniclers of human events as Black did. The Alabama-born grandson of slaves who moved to Chicago as a baby, Black helped liberate Buchenwald, taught public school, worked as a labor organizer, was Martin Luther King’s compatriot and a participant in the Civil Rights Campaign. He has been a central figure in the past decades of black Chicago politics.

On Saturday, the day after his birthday, the Kenwood resident basked in the affection of assembled well-wishers.

The emcee was Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago professor whose just-released book “Ghosts in the Schoolyard” about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s closing of 50 Chicago public schools is already being hailed as a classic. She talked about interviewing black by phone when she was 11 or 12 for a school project on the Great Migration and how magnanimous he was.

“That legacy — not only as a knowledge-producer but a knowledge sharer — is going to last for another hundred years,” she said.

After receiving the French Legion of Honor during a ceremony at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr., Sunday, Timuel D. Black poses for photos with his wife Zenobia Johnson-Black (her hands are on his shoulders) and a bevy of local politicians including (back row – left to right) United States Rep. Jan Schakowsky (9th), United States Rep. Danny Davis (7th), Stephen Curda, Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, United States Sen. Dick Durbin, Mrs. Black, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th); and (front row) Illinois State Sen. Mattie Hunter (3rd), former Ambassador Carol Mosley Braun, Mr. Black, and French Consul General Guillaume Lacroix.

Emily Hooper Lansana and avery r young performed a spoken word piece called “Libations” next, a call-and-response of thanksgivings for Black’s life and the awe-inspiring centuries of black American history.

“We have overcome a lot, and there is still plenty of overcoming to be done!” Lansana exalted. “May the ancestors who walked with you join us this weekend in celebrating your journey. May each step honor your sacred ground.”

“Ashay,” answered the crowd.

Speaker after speaker told the story of Black’s life, flushed with their personal anecdotes of the man through the years. We learned that his ancestors could not bear to speak the unspeakable truths about slavery, that the family arrived in Chicago soon after the 1919 race riots that left dozens dead.

In second grade, a teacher yelled and separated Black from a white girl who was trying to share her book with him. He wrote years later that it was far from the worst thing to ever happen to him. He went on to excel in school, in no small part to his parents’ advocacy for his education and efforts to get him into the best schools.

Black was drafted in 1943; when a letter from “Uncle Sam” told him he had been “selected to serve,” he sent it back, explaining that he did not have an Uncle Sam. He survived the Battle of the Bulge and wrote that his experience at the Buchenwald concentration camp was what inspired his life’s work.

“One thing you cannot say is that he was ever a passive observer, but a leader and a collaborator with other people,” said historian Charles Branham.

In a Chicago political scene that has always valued patronage and paths of succession, “He challenged the insularity of black politics from a maelstrom of activism. He was one of those storming the barricades of complacency to liberate marginalized … communities from the de facto and de jure white supremacy that had entrenched wealth and power in the hands of a few and denied resources and opportunities to people of color,” Branham said.

Other panelists commented on how Black’s effect on their lives’ work and activism.

“When I feel a little too tired to fight, I am reminded of Tim’s involvement in the long freedom struggle and his commitment to the long haul. I am reminded of his integrity when I’m tempted to cut corners and compromise and not speak out when in times when I know that that’s required,” said professor Barbara Ransby of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Sometimes we feel a little tired and sometimes the politics of today can make us especially weary — but when I think of Tim’s perseverance in the struggle for freedom for over a century, I find a second wind.”

Black followed the panelists and implored the audience to ask their elders where they were born, if they stayed there, if they left “and wherever they were, how did they keep on going?”

“My ancestors said, ‘I am so glad that trouble don’t last always. What shall I do? What shall I do?’” he said. “I am a recipient of that spiritual attitude. That is beyond race: that is universal. And so, what I have tried to do in my lifetime, having a great experience with my mother, daddy, uncles and aunts and friends — in spite of the handicaps — to help others as well as myself.

“I think I can say to all of you here,” he said, “I used to be your age.” The crowd roared. “Keep the faith,” Black continued. “Keep on going, but share with others the faith of the future. Carry the message expressed by Duke Ellington, who was a universalist, ‘I believe that God put sun and moon up in the sky. I believe that dark clouds are just clouds passing by. Lord, dear Lord above — God almighty, God above — please look down and see my people through.’

“We have done the impossible many times, because we had faith in each other and in the future, for ourselves, our future children and all. Let’s keep the faith and keep on going.”

After Tracye Matthews, executive director of the U. of C. Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture read a letter from former President Barack Obama (“No matter your background or station in life, if you are from Chicago, then Tim is looking out for you”), organizers brought Black his birthday cake as the refrain from Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” played and the audience clapped, danced and sang.