Civil Rights Activist, Historian Timuel Black Dies at 102

In Summary

Timuel Black is most notably known for helping Black people migrate from the South to the North, registering voters and campaigning for Chicago’s first Black mayor. 

Timuel Black, a civil rights activist and historian, died at the age of 102 on Wednesday. 

Black, a true pioneer of change and betterment for his community, cemented a lifelong impact across the country for those who revered him for his fight.  

But it was the daily love from his wife of 40 years which fueled him. 

“I just can’t imagine life without him,” said Zenobia Johnson-Black. “He’s been so supportive and has been my protector, my confidante. I miss him already.” 

Black was born on Dec. 7, 1918, in Birmingham, Alabama. He considered his birthday a famous day in history when he turned 100. 

“My mother and father were children of former slaves, my great-grandparents, products of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Black told the Chicago Tribune when he was 100. “I came up in a time when African American men—women, too—were being lynched, the racial segregation so terrible, people were fleeing to escape the terrorism.” 

He is known for marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Black helped organize the “freedom trains” in 1963 which took thousands of Chicago residents to the March on Washington. 

“When Dr. King came on stage and put into eloquent terms, that ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, all of us were in tears,” Black said in 2014. “We believed that dream could be fulfilled, and we left with a feeling of responsibility to the dream and to the man… Though we lived in a period of depression, we were not depressed. We had a feeling that it’s going to be all right.” 

Black also mentored a young Barack Obama, the first Black and 44th president of the United States. 

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Obama released a statement Wednesday that Black “was a testament to the power of place, and how the work we do to improve one community can end up reverberating through other neighborhoods and other cities, eventually changing the world.” 

Black campaigned for Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, and he also helped Black people migrate from the south to the north. 

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“They fled the South for better opportunities—education, jobs, housing, the right to vote,” Black once said. “Instead, they were ghettoized by landlords determined not to rent or sell to Negroes.” 

Black had a hand in sewing unbreakable threads in the fabric of civil rights. His accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed, especially in Chicago. 

The University of Chicago awarded Black the William Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service in 2012. He was deemed “one of the most influential civil rights leaders in Chicago history” and “a national voice in the cause of American justice.” 

“Timuel Black dedicated his life to helping communities across Chicago, especially on the South Side,” said Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement and external affairs at UChicago. “His unparalleled understanding of the area’s history and people made him an outstanding advocate, a trusted counselor and a consummate community partner. He was deeply committed to educating and inspiring young people—a mission that he advanced with the University of Chicago through the creation of the Timuel D. Black Community Solidarity Scholarship.  

“Tim was one of the most passionate community leaders of the effort to bring the Obama Presidential Center to the South Side, and his vision was central to that proposal’s success. Even as we mourn his loss, we know his humanitarian spirit will continue to guide us in working toward a bright future for the South Side and beyond.” 

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