by Esther Kang
Bridges of Memory
Wherever Timuel Black goes in Bronzeville, people recognize and greet him. Be it enjoying a meal at Pearl’s Place or walking through the halls of DuSable High School, his alma mater, Black is a fixture on the South Side of Chicago, where he has lived his entire life. “When you’ve been around as long as I have, you meet a lot of people,” says Black, who turned 90 in December.
But age has little to do with the community’s embrace of the activist, educator, and historian, who has turned his talent and experience to a remarkable publishing project called Bridges of Memory. An oral history of the black migration to Chicago from the Deep South that began around World War I, the series, projected to encompass three books, began with the appearance of the first volume in 2003. In 2008, the second volume—Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s Second Generation of Black Migration (Northwestern University Press)—appeared in paperback, and Black is hopeful that the final installment will appear early in 2009.
Black’s chronicle unfolds through a series of interviews with both prominent and little-known African Americans. “The history of blacks in Chicago had not been written in the way I wanted,” says Black, a grandchild of former slaves from Alabama. “I wanted to tell the stories through the voices and memories of the people who lived them.”
Michael Flug, the senior archivist for the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Woodson Regional Library, calls the Bridges series “a landmark work that turns a mirror on the city’s past and gazes at what the future might be if there were greater equality.”
Black is also a longtime educator who has taught in the Chicago Public Schools as well as the City Colleges of Chicago. He has fought for equal housing, served as an adviser to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and led the Chicago contingent to the 1963 March on Washington. In 1983 he headed the campaign to register more than 250,000 voters here—voters who helped elect Harold Washington as the city’s mayor. So it’s no surprise that in 1991, when a community organizer named Barack Obama returned to Chicago with a Harvard law degree, he sought advice from Black. Seventeen years later, on November 4, 2008, Black and his wife, Zenobia, watched the election coverage in their home with friends. “When we learned that he had made it, that there was no turning back, the house just went wild,” Black remembers.
Still tireless as he completes his ninth decade, Black sits on the boards of or advises numerous organizations, including the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Center for Urban Life & Culture, among others. He also writes a column for Lakefront Outlook, a weekly community newspaper covering Bronzeville. “The breadth of Tim’s experience fools even Tim,” says Flug, who has known Black for more than 20 years. “He’s a humble man, but it’s hard for anybody to comprehend everything he’s done. Tim really is a Renaissance man.”