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Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

Timuel Black discusses his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

Chicago civil rights icon reflects on 9 decades of black history

by Matthew McClellan
Feb 27, 2013

Timuel Black Profile Pic 1

Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

While visiting his high school alma mater DuSable, 94-year-old Timuel Black talks about his work as an activist during the Civil Rights Era.

Timuel Black Profile Pic 2

Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

The Charles A. Hayes Center, the former meeting place of the United Packing House Workers Union, is where Timuel Black and other Chicagoans helped organize the March on Washington.

Timuel Black Profile Pic 4

Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

The Charles A. Hayes Center, the former meeting place of the United Packing House Workers Union, is where Timuel Black and other Chicagoans helped organize the March on Washington.

Timuel Black Profile Pic 3

Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

While visiting the Charles A. Hayes Center in Bronzeville, 94-year-old Timuel Black talks about his work as an activist during the Civil Rights Era.

Timuel Black was born in 1918, the year the First World War ended. He was 10 when the Great Depression hit. He was 14 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated, 20 when the Second World War started, 24 when he went to war, 26 when the war ended, and 36 when Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi.

He was 44 when he organized a trainload of Chicagoans to join thousands of other Americans on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a rousing, history-making speech.

Black was not just an observer to the most significant events of the 20th Century, he became a participant and a motivator.

The grandson of former slaves, Black was born in Birmingham, Ala. on December 7, 1918.

The lack of job opportunities for blacks in the Jim Crow South and his parents’ fears of being murdered by the Ku Klux Klan made moving to the North more appealing.

Black’s parents answered the clarion call of the Chicago Defender and northern industrialists to come North to seek prosperity and social preference.

To Chicago and other cities in the North, black transplants brought with them their Southern culture: blues, jazz, gospel. But a different mentality persisted in a less restrictive atmosphere than blacks had been accustomed to in the South.

“There was a spirituality as well as an intellectuality that came with them,” Black said, “and the demand politically that their children be educationally equal to their Caucasian opponents.”

“You had the educational capabilities, so they demand it,” Black continued. “And then the community was a community,” Black said of his Bronzeville neighborhood where his parents settled and he still lives.

“Almost all the people knew one another because most all of them were from the same areas of the South, and they treasured each other, and they competed with their children about education.”

DuSable to Service

DuSable High School in the Bronzeville community boasts alumni from magazine publishing giant John H. Johnson to jazz musician/singer Nat King Cole to Chicago politician Harold Washington to comedian, and Black’s classmate, Redd Foxx.

“I was kind of like a little hoodlum, hanging out with Redd Foxx and those guys, having a good time,” Black said chuckling.

But he said he never lost sight of his educational focus, nor did his parents allow him to.

“‘You either going to school or [you are] getting a job,’” Black said his parents told him.

Black went to work at neighborhood stores after graduating from high school. His 23rd birthday, Dec. 7, 1941, would be a date etched in Black’s memory.

The Pearl Harbor Naval Base was attacked in Hawaii and led to America’s entry into World War II. A couple years later, Black was drafted and went abroad to fight in the war, an experience not only confounded by the atrocities of war, but also the discrimination he faced in the armed services.

“I went overseas, and I had officers who did not pass the Army General Classification Test with a grade as high as mine, but yet they were my boss,” Black said. I had to obey them in order to come out with an honorable discharge.”

This discrimination sparked Black’s dedication tothe Civil Rights Movement.

Active Activist

While working as a teacher in the Chicago public school system, Black became involved in the Chicago Teacher’s Union, which  helped propel him to the ranks of president of the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council. The council aimed to combat discrimination in the job market and represent black worker interests.

As a chapter president, Black developed a relationship with another prominent activist and union leader, A. Philip Randolph. Randolph organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black union, and the first black union to be chartered under the American Federation of Labor.

Randolph also initiated what became known as the March on Washington, the first hint of which came from what Black thought was a passing comment at a January, 1963 national board meeting of the NALC.

“Almost in a heat of anger with all of us on the board, Randolph said, ‘I’m gonna call a march! I’m gonna call a march on Washington.'"

“We looked and said, ‘My Lord, what is he talking about? How we gonna do that?’”

But before setting their sights on Washington, Black returned to his birthplace of Birmingham with others to march against discrimination and violence against minorities in the Jim Crow South.

Black said marching in Birmingham propelled King into the national spotlight.

“So many young people were stoned and beaten in Oak Park, right next to 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham,” Black said. “And Dr. King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“Because of television, the new media, those things in Birmingham were shown all over the world.”

Organizing Chicago for Washington

After the atrocities of Birmingham made national and international news, propelling King to prominence, Randolph asked King to take over the nominal leadership of the March on Washington.

Black was tapped to organize Chicagoans because of his work as an activist in local labor unions.

And while some were skeptical about backing King, Black wasn’t.

“I followed Dr. King. I was optimistic,” Black said.

“Coming out of the army with a mission and hearing this brilliant, charismatic, trusted, trustful young man, I placed my faith [in him]—that’s the way many of us did [it]—we had faith, hopes and then, of course, plans.”

Much of that planning took place in Bronzeville at the current site of the Charles A. Hayes Center, 4859 S. Wabash Ave., the former meeting place of the United Packing House Workers Union.

“We had volunteer service 24 hours a day in this site, black and white to organize,” Black said.

The Chicago head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters made arrangements for Chicagoans to have train rides to Washington.

“We had more than 2,500 who went with us from Chicago, from the LaSalle Street Station, all the way to Washington, D.C.” Black said.

“There was not a dry eye in that momentous crowd of more than 250,000 people from all over the country,” Black said.

“It was a thrilling, thrilling moment.”

The Aftermath

Black returned home to Chicago after the march, where he continued to be an activist and has watched the political landscape of his city and country change for nearly a half century.

Fellow DuSable alum and Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, was an admirer of King and benefited from the efforts of King, Black and other civil rights pioneers.

Since Washington’s mayoral election, Black has seen another Chicago politician rise to national prominence: Barack Obama.

Black said he saw the same kind of enthusiasm at the height of the Civil Rights Era, from blacks and whites, to elect the nation’s first black president.

“In the minds of those of us who are the progeny of former slaves, we believe that we can always do the impossible,” Black said. “And we’ve seen it happen often enough that we know we can do the impossible.”