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100 years of history: Timuel Black takes readers through Chicago streets in ‘Sacred Ground’

Feb. 4, 2019 


CHICAGO — Youngsters: That was the word Timuel Black Jr. used to describe most of the audience at a recent Seminary Co-Op Bookstore event. Black, who is 100 years old, was discussing his latest book, “Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black.”

His story begins with his family arriving in Chicago weeks after the race riot of 1919, part of the first wave of the Great Migration. Settling in what was called the Black Belt — an area that spanned from 26th Street to 63rd, Cottage Grove to State Street — Black considers the space Sacred Ground: “space from which major figures in the freedom movement emerged, and where historic commitments were forged.”

“I’m here to personalize and transfer that history to younger people across all lines — race and gender,” Black said. “‘Sacred Ground’ is a story that I tell about growing up in Chicago on the South Side and witnessing and participating in changes that occurred during that period. My hope is to encourage younger people across all dividing lines, that a change is going to come. What role will you have in bringing about the change you feel embraces all human beings?”

Susan Klonsky, who wrote the book with Black, said the two aimed to “document a fairly typical story of the life of a community.” It just so happens this community was where Harold Washington had ties, former President Barack Obama started on his political path, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a stand on desegregating housing in the Chicago area. (Black invited King to visit and speak in the city as early as 1956 and helped to organize the notable march on Washington in 1963.)

In the book, Black crosses paths with numerous luminaries: He was the grocery boy for the Hansberrys — the family of playwright Lorraine Hansberry; Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s husband represented one of Black’s family members in a court case; and Black counted Nat King Cole (a DuSable High School classmate) and Studs Terkel among his friends. He shares tales of being a WWII solider, a social worker, a teacher at a number of city high schools, and a member of civil rights and labor movements. Black said his stories are a matter of experience and knowledge — not reading.

He attests he’s retired, but not tired. He’s a vocal supporter of Obama’s effort to build a presidential library and museum on the South Side. His ongoing efforts to advocate for, advance and chronicle black life in Chicago are evident in his collection of 257 boxes of archival material, artifacts and art donated in 2010 to the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research collection of Afro-American History and Literature . Black, the “senior statesman of Chicago’s South Side,” as his editor Bart Schultz calls him, is sharing these stories to offer a picture of social change, a story that he calls typical of his generation, with the hope of making the world a better place.

“As for being an inspiration, treasure, and hero, those words belong to the Sacred Ground that this book has tried to describe, all the families and friends, people and places, elders and ancestors, communities and conundrums,” Black writes. “My life has been only a reflection — and only a limited, partial reflection — of that bigger historical movement and moment. But all of us are only parts of something much bigger, and for me, that spiritual story of this Sacred Ground is the most important story.”

“Sacred Ground” offers information (local and national) that may pique interest into further inquiry:

The Jones Brothers who ran a numbers game on the South Side also were owners of the first black-owned department store.

The United Auto Workers financed the March on Washington to a major degree, because the NAACP and the Urban League doubted it would be successful and were reluctant to be identified with it. “When it became clear that we were a force to be reckoned with, then every organization wanted to claim credit for the march,” Black said.

Black considers the cause and effect of gang leader Jeff Fort’s Blackstone Rangers — later the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation — which may or may not have played a role at clearing out middle-class blacks from the area, allowing the University of Chicago to expand.

We talked to Black just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day on his past, present and future. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: The Jason Van Dyke verdict just came out, inspiring so many feelings about the 81 month sentencing. How has the African-American picture changed over your lifetime?

A: As far as the being a part of the lower class, it’s gotten worse. The middle class, because they usually try to live in mixed-race communities, it’s gotten better. Now the police force, however, for that lower class is more dangerous because (the police) don’t feel threatened whatever they do. Would he have shot someone 16 times (in my neighborhood, back in the day), the whole community would have converged on (Van Dyke) immediately and maybe he would have been shot by one of the neighbors in the old community. (The police) just start shooting depending where you are. (Laquan McDonald) could not have been shot 16 times in Hyde Park. All of Hyde Park would have been enraged. In my day, many (white) police were known by the people in the community. Even with black officers now, they are not as responsible to the community as they used to be. There is a difference in terms of that kind of change. Some for the better, many worse.

Q: The idea of community seems more integral back in the day than it does now. How did we lose that sense of ‘He’s not heavy; he’s my brother?’

TB: We lost it partially among the first and second Great Migrations. The second Migration was bringing people with different styles of living life here; they didn’t talk the same talk, their music was different. The social distance became greater and harder to describe. The other thing is the interruption of humans talking to humans. We talk more now through various technology and there’s not the personal feeling of responsibility between two human beings that used to be. That depersonalizes affection and emotion and communications.

Q: Your book explores the “the American conundrum” — conflicted feelings of loyalty toward a country with systems that mistreat black people. Will there ever be an answer to the conundrum?

TB: I think there is. America promises “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” so we have to continue with that idea and we have to begin to believe all human beings are created equal. As long as we carry the idea of competitive capitalism, then that competition is going to continue. If it’s not on race, it will be on a different item. But as long as we believe in accumulation by fewer people of all of the resources, then the competition is going to continue because all human beings want to survive. And if that distribution is not available to them, they’re going to try to take it. We are creating, through (President Donald) Trump, another form of competitiveness to acquire the resources and confine those resources to fewer people.

Q: In your book, you also speak of the containment of the black population in the Black Belt’s boundaries being enforced by physical violence and restrictive housing covenants. Are we still contained, as a people, here?

TB: We’re more contained by class now: Black and white against the poor. It looks like class, but it’s still race. The facts as I see them is that class has replaced race on an observable level, but the same issue of competitive capitalism still dominates most of the thinking of those in power. This president (Trump) personifies that more openly than anyone who’s come into the presidency in a long, long time. Change is going to come. How will you participate in making that change the one that you would like to have? Because the other side will have people participating to keep it like it is or make it go back the other way. Trump says ‘make America great again.’ My attitude is, make America like it ought to be.

 


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services