HYDE PARK — Generations of loved ones, political heavyweights, veteran musicians and Chicagoans of all stripes celebrated Timuel Black’s 102 years of life at his public memorial Sunday.
Black, an icon of Black Chicago who spent his life working for social and economic equality, died at his Drexel Boulevard home Oct. 13. His public viewing and private funeral were held in late October.
Several hundred people gathered to share memories of Black and perform in his honor Sunday during a three-hour public memorial one speaker likened to a public television special. The memorial was held at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave., just two days before Black would have turned 103.
“I can’t help but think how much Tim himself would’ve enjoyed this gathering and all the music,” said Zenobia Johnson-Black, his wife of of four decades.
Black — an educator, activist, historian, political organizer and ever-present elder of Black Chicago — was born to Alabama sharecroppers Dec. 7, 1918. He was a born leader who, “at age eight months, brought his family to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama,” Johnson-Black joked Sunday.
In Black’s century as a Chicagoan, he served in an all-Black supply unit during World War II, taught in Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges, rallied support for Harold Washington to become Chicago’s first Black mayor and poured his knowledge into younger generations with numerous public appearances, among many other achievements.
Dozens of well-wishers, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and some attendees at Sunday’s memorial, visited Black and drove in circles outside his home as he celebrated his 102nd and final birthday last December. He was honored as the first inductee to the Illinois Black Hall of Fame Feb. 26.
“I don’t mean to be irreverent by calling him the Black Forrest Gump, but everything he has touched in this century, it is truly amazing,” said Natalie Moore, a journalist who described herself as one of Black’s many honorary “grandchildren.”
Gov. JB Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were among the public officials in attendance Sunday. Both spoke to Black’s work battling inequities in education, the workplace, housing and politics in Chicago and across the nation.
“Most of us know and can recite by name the giants on whose shoulders we stand,” Lightfoot said. “… We know that as Black folks, we never pass through this world alone; someone sacrificed for us to be able to fulfill our God-given talent. Timuel Black was such a person for me.”
Black’s fellow political activists and participants in the labor and Civil Rights movements reflected on his dedication to a host of causes. In 1963 alone, Black was the Midwest coordinator for the March on Washington and helped organize the “Freedom Day” protests against CPS’ segregationist policies.
“He was a moral gyroscope, teaching social justice far beyond his high school and college classrooms,” said Don Rose, a political consultant who met Black after the Rainbow Beach wade-ins of the early 1960s. He served as Black’s press secretary when he unsuccessfully ran to become 4th Ward alderman.
“The whole city was his classroom as he shared his wisdom and humanity as a writer, speaker and organizer — but without the constant need to seek out the cameras,” Rose said.
Black spent his later years as the South Side’s premier griot. During that time, he advocated for youth to learn and refine the organizing tools of generations past — with hope for the future chiefly among them.
“Something I recall clearly is when Mr. Black spoke to me about it not being enough to advance just myself, and that I have a duty to advance others who may not have my same advantages,” said Brandon Walker, an eighth-grader from Munster, Indiana, who as a 9-year-old interviewed Black.
“He said, ‘The door is going to open and be prepared to walk in, but keep the door open so others can come in, too.'”
Black’s willingness to share openly with those working for a better world — from youth like Walker to his own peers — is a crucial part of his legacy, speakers said.
“Mr. Black is the missing link in our history,” Jonathan Jackson, son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said as he gave Black’s eulogy. “God granted him 102 years of age, not for himself, but for us.”
A noted jazz historian who spent his last days savoring the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, Black’s love of the genre and Black music was honored with several performances Sunday. An African drum salute and processional opened the service.
The Orbert Davis Quartet, headlined by the trumpeter who co-founded the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, performed “West End Blues” and “Weather Bird” by Louis Armstrong — whom Black saw perform at the Vendome Theater as a young boy.
Also performing Sunday was the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s Jazz Links alumni ensemble. Black served on the institute’s board for more than 25 years, and six musicians have received financial support through an institute grant program named after him.
Vocalists Maggie and Africa Brown performed, and Dee Alexander sang a rendition of Nina Simone’s “Four Women.”
An intergenerational duo of Cathy Townsend and Ajene Cooks sang the Negro spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” arranged by pianist Robert Irving III.
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians‘ Great Black Ensemble closed the service with “Make a Joyful Sound,” leading a second line out of the chapel and into the night.
“Most of us could only hope to witness a century on this Earth,” Pritzker said. “Timuel Black shaped his century.”
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