Sacred Ground: Venerable Man — Timuel Black, Elder Statesman of Black Chicago

I recently had the privilege of hearing one of Chicago’s eldest and most important oral historians of our time, Dr. Timuel Black, speak about his life and new book, Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black. The book is part memoir, part lovingly written tribute to the “Black Belt” of the south side of Chicago, now considered “Bronzeville”, where blacks were forced to concentrate when they came from southern towns in the early 20th century. Dr. Black sees it his responsibility to transfer the stories from his lived experiences to the next generation. He does so with keen wit and wisdom.

At 100 years old, Dr. Black has seen a lot. Having come from Birmingham, Alabama with his family when he was less than a year old, he has witnessed firsthand a century of Chicago history. Dr. Black’s sacred ground cultivated many great Americans like Nat King Cole (a classmate of his), Harold Washington (who he organized massive voter turn-out for), Carol Moseley Braun (who he helped get elected), Carter G. Woodson (who he witnessed create Black History Week — now Month), and Lorraine Hansberry (whose family solicited him for grocery runs).

Sacred Ground overflows with hope. He says to young people (and he considers everyone young), “be ready, the door will open, be prepared”. This message seems daunting coming from a man whose grandparents were slaves and who personally lived through Jim Crow, separate schools and a segregated military. Having helped organize the Chicago delegation to the March on Washington and bring Dr. King to Chicago, he’s certainly seen great change. And as a key insider who mentored Barack Obama, he’s lived the words of another contemporary of his, Sam Cooke, “a change is gonna come”. He speaks with little distance between himself and history. He talks about witnessing the Buchenwald concentration camp as a WWII soldier as if it happened yesterday and describes the murder of Emmitt Till as if he were discussing Trevon Martin or Laquan McDonald.

I asked him how segregation contributed to the shaping of his sacred ground. He describes a reverent “parallel little village” that emerged as a byproduct of forced segregation that kept blacks from living elsewhere. He recounts the alternative ecosystem of social and economic institutions like black grocery stores, barber shops, insurance companies, and YMCAs that were all supported by a parallel black economy that kept dollars within the community and gave black people great political power. He considers his sacred ground a training ground where he could look around and see all levels of success and achievement play out on streets that existed in the shadows of white Chicago. University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing describes this city-within-a-city in her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, “…daily social happenings took place in within what renowned sociologist W.E.B. DuBois called ‘the Veil’ — the border of an all black world…black social life under conditions of segregation has developed its own reason and rhythm. The Veil, derived as it is from the painful constraints of slavery and Jim Crow and their aftermath…”.[1] Behind the veil, Dr. Black saw black doctors, writers, and artists living alongside janitors and civil servants who all looked out for each other. He recounts how this created a culture of striving as newcomers and youth aspired to become the next great successes. He speaks of how his sacred ground sheltered composers like Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges who couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels they performed in and filled the streets with improvisational jazz sets when their shows for white patrons ended. Paradoxically, he speaks of the dismantling of his sacred ground with regret and considers some of its results unwanted externalities of successful fair housing laws. His love for his community even makes him wonder if housing integration didn’t happen a little too soon and laments the dissolution of his beloved culture.

Listening to Dr. Black I can’t help but be inspired how hopeful and optimistic he is and be baffled at his lack of anger and bitterness at the same time. I also can’t help but ask myself, how can he consider a community created by something as profane as redlining, restrictive covenants and racial terrorism, “Sacred”. As for anger or bitterness, he seems to let trouble roll off him like beads of water on a leaf in Spring. His message is pure, unfiltered, reverberating love that gives the impression that he hasn’t time for anger — he says “life goes on” and “nothing is impossible”. Dr. Black also leaves behind hints of what gives him hope. He lapses into negro spirituals, freedom songs, and jazz riffs when speaking of his community and memories. His favorites include another Sam Cooke melody: “I’m so glad, trouble don’t last always” and the words of Duke Ellington from his Sacred Concert “I believe that God put sun and moon up in the sky. I don’t mind the gray skies ’cause they’re just clouds passing by.” He’s clear that progress is not without responsibility and charges his listeners with the challenge, “tomorrow’s gonna be a better day because you’re going to make it a better day”. It’s clear that Timuel Black’s world is not only a result of what surrounds him but what’s inside him. We can only hope to leave a few of his rays of hope behind in our life and time.

[1] Eve L. Ewing, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago), 21.

Kelwin Harris is a city planner in Chicago.