Timuel Black Jr., aged 8 months old, and his two parents, both sharecroppers from Alabama, arrived in Chicago in August 1919. The parents were only a generation removed from the scars of slavery and the Civil War, and found it hard to earn an income from a system fixed to not deliver it down South. To them, Chicago represented financial stability and a chance to find that long-promised freedom.
They arrived as part of what was to be termed the First Great Migration, where 1.5 million African Americans went to the cities of the North, including 500,000 to Chicago in the two decades between 1910 and 1930. Once upon a time, to be black and in Chicago was to be hopeful. One by one they came through the doors at Union Station, most fleeing the South and Jim Crow, all looking for a better future in this heartland metropolis. Most of these newcomers settled on the South Side, as even in the North, freedom came with a few cold shoulders.
Last Wednesday, Timuel Black looked out upon a sea of expectant faces at the University of Chicago’s Quadrangle Club. He is now 93, and the audience was here to witness the University’s Board of Trustees bestow on him the Benton Medal, an award which recognizes his tireless work in the field of education. After graduating from Roosevelt University and then the University of Chicago, all with the help of the GI Bill, Timuel taught in mostly black high schools across the South Side. Later he became a professor of African American history at the Loop College (now known as Harold Washington College).
Yet, thinking of his life’s work as pedagogy is a mistake. While still teaching at Hyde Park High, he played a big part in the national fight for civil rights, leading the Chicago chapter of the March on Washington in 1963. Heading a grass roots campaign, he helped Harold Washington ascend to the heights of City Hall as Chicago’s first black mayor. Perhaps his greatest legacy was the penning of two volumes entitled Bridges of Memory, which contain extensive oral histories documenting the experiences of the black inhabitants on a stretch of the South Side. Roughly, this area spans from 26th Street in the north to 67th Street in the south; Cottage Grove in the east to the Dan Ryan Expressway in the west. This place he calls Bronzeville, and Timuel’s story is just as much about the people who live there as it is about his own life.
In the first few years, life wasn’t easy, at least not at first. As Timuel describes it, conditions in this new city were difficult. Many of these migrants found themselves in cramped ‘kitchenettes’–apartments which landlords would divide into ever-smaller pieces, a space originally meant for a single family now often housing four or five.
The South Side, too, wasn’t a haven from racism. The month before his family arrived at their home at 49th Street and St. Lawrence, a race riot erupted at the 29th Street beach because a young black man crossed an invisible color line in the sand, a crime for which he was beaten to death. Timuel’s family, like the many others who came in that first wave, lived in neighborhoods which were predominantly white and working-class. Yet, even in the midst of this transformation, he remembers the kindness with which a white neighbor treated his family, inviting his mother and her children over to seek refuge if tensions flared up again. It was this warmth which he said his mother was “absolutely flabbergasted” by, and it instilled hope that black and white could coexist in exactly this way.
Kitchenettes and race riots are things of the past for Timuel. Yet, one thing has not changed–he still lives on the South Side, and some days it feels like everyone on the street recognizes him. A short walk to the bank on a cold winter’s day quickly turns into hours in a car with an old student who presses him for stories of how it used to be. That student, Elizabeth Todd, never formally took a class with him, but she explains how important Timuel was in teaching her about her adopted city. “He told me stories, and in telling me those stories he taught me the history of the city. He told me stories of the development of the Black Belt, popular social clubs in Black Chicago, rivalries between high schools–Phillips versus DuSable. All of these stories contributed to my understanding of the place I was in.”
Many iterations of this story were told on Wednesday as Timuel received his award. Again and again, people stepped up to the microphone, telling the gathered crowd of how much he’s done for their education. We learn more about Timuel’s achievements from the people around him than from himself, and this is not entirely accidental.
For a man of his stature–his plaques and accolades alone fill eleven boxes at the Woodson Regional Library, each weighing 25 pounds–he is remarkably silent about the later stages of his life. These boxes are part of a larger collection which he donated to the Vivian Harsh Research Collection in October 2010. Collected within are writings, lecture notes, personal correspondence, tapings of interviews, and photographs: in all, the evidence of a very long, meaningful life carefully sorted by chronology and theme into 241 boxes.
In this voluminous collection, there is very little sense of inflated self-worth, only a man who wants to see his people improve. In an age when navel-gazing and self-obsession are commonplace amongst cultural icons, it is refreshing to hear a man speak about himself with such heartfelt humility: “I’m not a scholar, I’m not an intellectual, I’m not an academic. I’m just a guy who’s been living for a long time.”
In that long time, we get more glimpses of Timuel’s character. In File 056 of his writings lies a small two by three inch photograph of Tyreeta Paige. It’s 1963, and she’s a girl of fifteen at Hyde Park High School. Dressed in a pearl necklace, horn-rimmed glasses, and a round-necked dress, she writes to Timuel, her teacher, stating sincerely: “One of Hyde Park’s sweetest, most kindest and understanding teachers. I have only known you for a short time but in that time I think you are the greatest.”
Even when the markets crashed in 1929 and that optimistic age of the Great Migration seemed as if it would come to an end, hope remained in Timuel’s life. With a hint of nostalgia, he recalls that though the jobs in the factories they were promised quickly dried up and life became more uncertain, Bronzeville still held itself together thanks to a communal emphasis on education and a belief that things could get better for the next generation. As he said during his talk, “That was 1930 and the Great Depression came, but there were always still jobs. We were poor, yes, but we were never poverty-stricken. Our teachers, who were white, knew that we could learn, and that they had a responsibility to teach us. That was the relationship right there: it takes a village to raise a child. And that [Bronzeville] was the village. We belonged.”
It was a refrain his mother echoed over his protests. He preferred having fun, dividing his days between poolrooms, dancehalls, and sports as the ubiquitous jitney cabs ferried Timuel and his friends up and down the bustling commercial scene of the South Side. As he recalls, “I tried not to be smart, but my momma wouldn’t let that happen. She used to say: ‘You see Dr. Dawson down there? You can do that!’”
Those heady days of progress and belief now feel like a long time ago. Timuel decries the state of Bronzeville as it currently exists, and his disappointment is palpable when he speaks of how the hope for a better future for the neighborhood has been stolen away by guns, violence, and endemic poverty. As he explained to the gathered crowd, the contrast between himself as a young man and the black youth of today could not be any starker: “In my day, making less money, I still had hopes and dreams. Now, talk with the average young African American male under 25, and he does not believe that he is going to live very long. There’s the question: Who sells them the guns? Where do they get their guns?”
It is clear that simply thinking about the current state of the South Side is painful for him. He does not pin the blame on its inhabitants, and emphasizes that there are forces outside of their control that keep them from moving up in the world. Even in an age where racial segregation is no longer legally enshrined, one look at the city from South to North proves that it still exists.
To people of Timuel’s generation, to those who remember how it once was with the fun, the shops, and the sheer energy of the streets, it is the physical decay of their neighborhoods that is also difficult to bear. For Ida Mae Cress, one of the people Timuel interviewed for Bridges of Memory, the southern reaches of Bronzeville are a far cry from what they once were. “When you see 63rd Street today, you want to cry because when I was going to high school, it looked like the Loop with all kinds of shops and stores. Today, it’s just a tragic eyesore, and the conditions of those few buildings that are left between Cottage Grove and Stony Island is a sad thing.”
A simple question remains: How can Bronzeville recapture the hope and vitality of the past? For Timuel, the answer lies within the stories that he tells. Timuel Black believes that history contains important lessons that cannot possibly be forgotten if Black Chicago is to once again reach its lofty heights. He notes how most young black people turn their gaze inward, concerned only with their present, remaining oblivious to the “interesting, important, and somewhat glorious” decades of their forefathers. When he speaks of Bronzeville, he’s not just decrying the lost potential of a single neighborhood and their inhabitants huddled around Martin Luther King Avenue. He is talking about an idea, about how black Chicago could once more aspire to be great, if they could only take the time to glance back.