At 94 years of age, Timuel Black, Jr., is at a point in his life when most people are forced by nature to take it easy. But not even advanced age can slow down a man who has made such a profound imprint on 20th century American history with a life dedicated to social and political justice.
”I can’t move as fast, but I haven’t stopped,” he said. “I still go in the direction of making this a better world as it relates to safety, education, urban housing and jobs.”
Black, a professor emeritus of social science at Harold Washington College and former CPS educator, was awarded the Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service during the University of Chicago’s commencement ceremony on Saturday, June 9.
Created for and first awarded to U.S. Sen. William H. Benton in 1967, the medal is one of the university’s most prestigious awards, honoring people who have dedicated their lives to public service. Honorees include Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, The Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and international labor leader and humanitarian Ela Bhatt. Black is the 11th recipient of the medal.
“Timuel Black is one of the most influential civil rights leaders in Chicago history,” said one anonymous nominator. “He has been a community leader, political activist, thoughtful critic and national voice in the cause of American justice.”
Black started down the path to Saturday’s accolades in the early 1930s as a student at the erstwhile DuSable High School. Influenced by his meager pay as a retail clerk as well as by pro-labor street speakers in his Bronzeville neighborhood, he helped start a local chapter of the Retail Clerks Union.
A decade later, Black served in the European Theater of World War II from 1943-1945 as a supply unit soldier in the segregated U.S. Army; it was the experiences he had with prejudiced officers while at war that helped cement a life toward fighting for the civil liberties of those without them.
“I had troubles that had nothing to do with battle,” he said. “They wouldn’t promote me, but I was needed, so they kept me close by. That’s what I always tell young people: make yourself indispensable, no matter what.”
After returning home to Chicago, he continued his work with labor unions, ultimately pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Roosevelt University in 1952. Two years later, he obtained his Master of Social Science from University of Chicago.
Black became a notable figure in Chicago’s progressive black movement in Chicago, playing a significant role in the successful campaign of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor and a former classmate of Black’s.
His role in the civil rights movement earned him a list of associates that reads like a “who’s who” of black American history, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to W.E.B. DuBois to President Barack Obama, for whom he served as a consultant when Obama moved to Chicago to become a community organizer in the early 1990s. Obama wrote Black a personal letter that was read during his 90th birthday celebration in 2008.
Black’s life-long tendency to collect the pieces of his work resulted in a 260-box collection of pictures, tapes and documents called the “Timuel D. Black Jr., Papers,” currently archived in the Carter G. Woodson Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library. The collection documents Black’s rich history of political, civil and labor rights work in the city.
Despite being one of very few living people who can point to pictures in which they are standing next to Dr. King, Black remains humble about his historical work.
“I wasn’t trying to be a leader…I was just trying to be a participant,” he said. “After I left the war, I met so many people who had no fear in working for civil liberties, so I just got on board.”
Years at CPS
Black’s venerated history with Chicago Public Schools spans more than eight decades. He was a student at Edmund Burke Elementary School, where he was a classmate of Johnson Publishing Co. founder John H. Johnson and future jazz musician Nat King Cole.
He spent time at Wendell Phillips Academy High School before graduating from DuSable in 1937. He taught social studies at DuSable for two years after finishing his master’s degree in 1954 and left to teach in Gary, Ind., for a spell before coming back to CPS to teach at Farragut Career Academy and Hyde Park Academy High School, respectively.
Black said that at the time, there was a demand for black teachers to help desegregate CPS schools. But his tendency to bring civil rights activists and political figures to speak to his students was not appreciated by administrators and superintendents; he said it was his students – black and white – that successfully rallied to keep him in the classroom until he left teaching for CPS on his own in 1966.
“My students knew that I brought them together through education, so they didn’t want to lose Mr. Black,” he said.
His daughter, Ermetra Black Thomas, watched her father struggle to overcome prejudice and racism in many different aspects of his life from a very young age.
“During that day and age, he was not allowed to express himself a lot as an educator because of his race,” she said. “Still, he became a great man in spite of it all, and helped forge a path for others who came later.”
Black still works as a PTA member of the three charter schools located in the old DuSable High School building. The pride in his voice when he speaks of how he helped the schools obtain $8 million in college scholarships for graduating seniors this year is not of a man who has earned a place in the history books, but of a man who can still be reached simply by looking his name up in the local phone book.
“This PTA, we are one team – mothers, fathers, ministers, community leaders,” Black said. “It was that way when I was going to DuSable, and it’s the same today.”