By Michael Drapa | Photo by Robert Kozloff
After a grueling first year of battle in which he survived the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge, Timuel Black thought he had seen the worst of World War II. But a chance trip to the Buchenwald concentration camp at age 26 changed the course of Black’s life and gave him an irrevocable commitment to human rights.
Allied leaders wanted as many troops as possible to see the German death camps liberated in the spring of 1945. For Black, whose grandparents had been enslaved, confronting the evidence of atrocities had a deeper effect than his commanders foresaw.
“When we got up to Buchenwald, to see and feel and hear the cries, I was shocked,” Black recalls. “I began to feel that this could happen to anyone, and that in the long run, this is what happened to my ancestors, in an organized, systematic way. I was angry."
"I made an emotional decision that when I returned from the Army, that most of the rest of my life would be spent trying to make where I live, and the bigger world, a place where all people could have peace and justice.”
Nearly 70 years later, Black looks back proudly on a lifetime of achievement as a civil rights leader, starting with social activism as a teenager growing up during the Depression on Chicago’s South Side. Soon after earning his master’s degree from UChicago in 1954, Black brought a young Martin Luther King Jr. to campus in 1956 for the leader’s first major address in Chicago. Later, Black organized the Freedom Trains that took thousands of Chicagoans to the March on Washington. He also helped get Harold Washington Jr. elected as the first African American mayor of Chicago. Most recently, he has been a leader in the initiative to bring the Barack Obama Presidential Library to the South Side.
Now 95, Black remains a spellbinding lecturer for anyone curious enough to listen. He has assembled a two-part oral history, titled Bridges of Memory, in which he interviews hundreds of African Americans, who like his family, settled on the South Side. In addition to a third volume of oral histories, Black is also completing his autobiography, which he calls Sacred Ground, a title that refers not to religion but the spirituality Black gained growing up in Chicago.
“Though we lived in a period of Depression, we were not depressed,” Black says. “We had a feeling that it's going to be all right.”
Growing up in the Black Belt
Born Dec. 7, 1918 in Birmingham, Ala., Black was the youngest son of sharecroppers who moved their family to Chicago in 1919, part of the first Great Migration. They encountered a city torn by recent race riots. The family settled in an area known as the “Black Belt,” a neighborhood in present-day Bronzeville that had a dense population due to restrictive covenants that kept blacks from living in predominantly white areas.
“It was like a little city within a city. You had independent, parallel institutions"—economic, religious, and political, explains Black. “Your father and your mother may work outside [the Black Belt], but as the statement goes, ‘You could work outside, you could play outside, but you couldn’t stay outside.’”
Yet Black says growing up in the overcrowded Black Belt brought “a sense of independence and optimism.”
“As Hillary Clinton, borrowing an African phrase, said, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,” says Black. “We were in the village, and everyone considered us to be their own children.”
Black attended all-black DuSable High School, where he was classmates with Nat King Cole and John Johnson (future founder of Jet and Ebony magazines). Black also heard of a young schoolmate, Harold Washington Jr., who became mayor of Chicago in 1983 with Black’s influential support.
From Pearl Harbor to Battle of the Bulge
The bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 was the date of Black’s 23rd birthday; he was listening to jazz with friends at a local bar when they heard the news. Nearly two years later, Black was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served in the 308th Quartermaster Railhead Company, which supplied ammunition, weapons, and food for combat soldiers. In his two years of service, Black endured two of World War II’s bloodiest battles—Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, earning four Battle Stars and the French Croix de Guerre.
Luck may have saved Black’s life during the D-Day invasion. Black explains that there was competition among the commanding officers of two quartermaster units —the 306th and Black’s 308th—about which would go into Normandy first. “Finally the decision was made, like a flip of the coin” that the 306th would take part in Operation Overlord, Black explains. He pauses at the memory that the 306th suffered heavy losses during the invasion; Black’s own unit went into Utah beach days later.
While on leave, Black traveled through the “barren wasteland” of the war-torn Belgian countryside, remembering his fallen comrades. He missed home and his daily letters from his mother.
Overcome with emotion, he wondered, “What the hell am I living for?” He admits it was “the first and only time I considered just giving up.” But after encouragement from a fellow soldier, Black recalled the words of his “far-sighted mother,” who had told him, “‘You go there and you come back with an honorable discharge.’ And since women have always dominated my life, I felt I had to obey Mama.”
Black fought on, despite self-doubt and even tougher yet, racism in the ranks. He describes how German war prisoners were allowed to eat in the dining room with white U.S. soldiers, yet blacks were not—in essence, the captives could eat with the captors, yet blacks could not eat with their fellow countrymen.
“That’s the change that many of us came home wanting to achieve,” Black says.
Following the war, Black returned home to Chicago, remembering the personal decision he made at Buchenwald.
“What I promised myself that I would try to do, particularly after World War II,” Black recalls, is “to try and make this world a better place to live, but starting at home.”
Taking MLK from UChicago to national stage
After the war, Black attended Roosevelt University for his bachelor’s degree and then received his master’s in 1954 from the University of Chicago. He studied sociology and history, learning from famed scholar Allison Davis, the first tenured African American professor at the University. After UChicago, Black worked as a high school teacher in Gary, Ind.
He was watching television in December 1955 when he saw “this good-looking young man in Montgomery, Alabama.” Black recalls, “I thought, he articulates the feelings that I have, and I got on a plane and went to Montgomery, which is where I met Martin Luther King."
“With his courage, charisma, and academic training, it was the kind of leader that I would like to follow.”
The following year, Black and fellow members of Hyde Park’s First Unitarian Church at 56th Street and Woodlawn Avenue invited King to speak—the sermon was moved to Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the UChicago campus to accommodate King’s growing popularity as a civil rights leader. As it turned out, Black proudly remembers, “even Rockefeller Chapel wasn’t big enough for Dr. King.”
Black remained an ardent supporter of King’s as he ascended the national stage. Along with A. Philip Randolph, Black was entrusted with organizing the Chicago contingent to the historic 1963 March on Washington. Thousands of young people packed the trains, including local figures such as Studs Terkel, to witness King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
“When Dr. King came on stage and put into eloquent terms, that ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, all of us were in tears,” Black says. “We believed that dream could be fulfilled, and we left with a feeling of responsibility to the dream and to the man.”
Educating a younger generation
Black spent most of his life fulfilling King’s dream through his work as an educator, helping end segregation in Chicago Public Schools, and also as an administrator in the City Colleges of Chicago system.
In 1963, he ran for the Chicago City Council—he contends to demonstrate to his students at Hyde Park High School that he “could run as an independent and not be killed.” Black took on the political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, accusing him of “plantation politics”—a phrase that garnered national attention, though Black lost the election.
Emboldened even after the 1968 death of Dr. King, “his spiritual guide,” Black remained a prominent political and community activist. In 1983, Black was part of a grassroots campaign that succeeded in getting Harold Washington Jr.—Black’s former DuSable High School schoolmate—elected mayor of Chicago.
In 2012, the University of Chicago honored Black at its Spring Convocation with the William Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service. One nominator wrote that Black was “one of the most influential civil rights leaders in Chicago history. He has been a community leader, political activist, thoughtful critic and national voice in the cause of American justice.”
In March 2014, Black joined the Community Advisory Board for the collaborative effort led by the University of Chicago to bring the Barack Obama Presidential Library to the South Side. The project stirs Black’s sense of local and national pride. He says a presidential library on the South Side could be “a place of information and inspiration.”
Each fall and winter, Black leads tours about the history of Bronzeville and Dr. King through the University’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies and the Civic Knowledge Project—tours that describe his life and work on the South Side, as well as King’s work, to younger generations.
“I want young people, regardless of race or gender, to know that regardless of where you are in life at a particular time, it can be better for you. Growing up in the ghetto wasn’t a bad thing—it was just overcrowded. For younger people, I want to let them see the future, whatever the present may be.”
Even at age 95, Black says his work as an educator is never over.
“I’m not ready to go anywhere,” says Black. “I want to continue to encourage, as well as do what I can to fulfill the dream that Dr. King magnified and glorified, because that’s part of the universal dream that all of us need to have.”
Originally published on October 20, 2014.