Timuel Black

By: Suzanne Hanney February 10, 2020

Bronzeville is “Sacred Ground” to historian and social anthropologist Timuel Black, not so much for its brick and mortar, but for its oral histories, its networking and its music: “jazz with an African beat and a European melody line that affirms we are all sharing this Earth together and that there is no monopoly on joy.”


Black, age 101, came up from Birmingham, Alabama as a baby with his parents shortly after the Race Riots of 1919 intensified the neighborhood’s segregation, so that residents were forced to develop their own businesses and to rely on each other. When he was growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, “Bronzeville was a place of much poverty and some wealth, a center for music and sports, and a terrain where demonstrations could break out at any time,” according to his archive at the Carter G. Woodson regional library.


“Even when the Depression was at its worst, the sense of poverty never seemed that overwhelming,” Black wrote in “Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black,” as told to Susan Klonsky, edited by Bart Schultz and published last year by Northwestern University Press. “We always lived in and around fairly prosperous neighbors, among doctors, lawyers, railway porters and postal workers.”


The Great Migration of African Americans from the South during World War I meant that the area between 22nd and 55th Streets doubled in population between 1910 and 1920, with small families crammed into kitchenette apartments. Mom-and-pop stores provided first jobs for teenage delivery boys. “Pearl’s Kitchens” -- independent restaurants -- created places for conversation between people as seemingly far apart as gamblers and preachers.


Always, there was music. In the 1910s and '20s, “The Stroll,” or State Street between 26th and 39th Streets, was so thick with nightclubs that it was said a musician could just hold a cornet in the air and it would play itself. Before air conditioning, there was not only music in the air, but coming out of neighbors’ windows, Black said. In 1927, the opening of the Savoy Ballroom at 47th and South Parkway (later known as Dr. Martin Luther King Drive) moved the entertainment area farther south.


The school system itself reinforced the music culture, thanks to Capt. Walter Dyett, first at Wendell Phillips and then at DuSable High School, 4934 S. Wabash Ave. Between 1931 and 1961, Dyett trained more than 20,000 musicians, including vocalist Dinah Washington, saxophonists Gene Ammons and Von Freeman, drums/multireed player Joseph Jarman and pianist/vocalist Nat “King” Cole.


Black sat alphabetically in front of Cole at Wendell Phillips and then DuSable until Cole dropped out of school during junior year in 1934. Cole had been playing the piano until early in the morning at a club to help support his family. However, because of restrictive covenants that prevented blacks from moving out of the community, DuSable was extremely overcrowded and went to double and triple shifts; Cole was assigned to an 8 a.m. school day instead of one that began at 9:30 or 10 a.m.


“Our division teacher refused to let that happen,” Black said in a telephone interview. “He said, ‘you didn’t come here to play music, you came here to learn.’ [Cole’s] father was so disappointed, but it’s a practical fact in those days money was very important to the welfare of the family, so Cole dropped out of school. I said to myself, ‘My god, how is he going to make it?’ He was not singing then because he played piano with younger people like Dorothy Donegan and Dinah Washington, who could sing. He was such a fantastic pianist that when we were having teachers’ meetings, we had a piano in almost every room, and we would put a card on the door and charge people who wanted to hear Nat “King” Cole play. He didn’t start singing until he left Chicago with the big bands, when he had to make a living in California. It wasn’t that he didn’t like school. When he would come back to Chicago for any reason he would stop at DuSable and talk about his experiences there.”


Dyett had been attending Illinois School of Medicine when he started performing with local orchestras led by Erskine Tate at the Vendome Theatre and by Carroll Dickerson to help pay family medical expenses, according to his archive at the University of Chicago. Dyett finally left medical school and worked as a musician for a decade before he was hired at Phillips in 1931. He later received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music and served on both the black musicians’ Local AFM 208 and then the merged AFM Local 10-208. He acquired the “Captain” title as bandmaster for the Eighth Regiment Infantry Band of the Illinois National Guard.


Saxophonist Jimmy Ellis said in Black’s earlier book, “Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration” that Dyett’s students were already good musicians by the time they graduated. “[Dyett] had the awareness to know that, ‘Hey, I don’t care if you don’t like me. If you want to play the horn, then you’ve got to practice and do what I say.’ Total discipline was required. And you’ve not only got to be able to play the music –it's also how you looked, how you dressed – everything. ‘Whatever you’re doing, if it’s not in order, get out of here.’”

Black noted that he had always wondered how anyone could stay in Dyett’s class, yet students would beg to get back in after Dyett had kicked them out.


Besides leading various bands at the school in the daytime, Dyett wrote and arranged music for the singing, dancing and skits in the annual Hi-Jinks show that he rehearsed at night.


“Hi-Jinks was a community event and bandleaders would come like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington in order to find some of these young musicians to be in their bands,” Black said. “Yes, it was a talent search, and the search was concentrated. Most of the African-Americans of the period had formal musical training in symphonic and classical music but since they couldn’t get jobs in Chicago, they turned their talent to jazz and blues. Benny Goodman also came looking for talented musicians for his racial orchestra.”


Black's other DuSable contemporaries, meanwhile, included Ebony magazine publisher John Johnson, realtor/author Dempsey Travis and the Rev. Abraham Patterson, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church.


World War II began on Black’s 23rd birthday: Dec. 7, 1941. He served with an Army supply unit that landed on the beach at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. However, a visit to the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald in central Germany in 1945 was a life-changing event. Nearly 250,000 people had been imprisoned at Buchenwald – Afro-Germans, gypsies, homosexuals, Jews – and nearly all had died of disease, starvation, medical experiments or executions. Black was overwhelmed by the smell and by the sight of the remaining skeletal prisoners.


Coming home to a segregated Chicago, Black earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Roosevelt University and a master’s degree in sociology and anthropology from the University of Chicago. He taught at DuSable, his alma mater, and at Farragut and Hyde Park High Schools. He was an assistant director for the federal Chicago Teacher Corps and a dean and vice president for academic affairs at Wright College and Olive Harvey College, respectively.


As a teachers’ union activist, Black was elected president of the local Negro American Labor Council (NALC), which was headed nationally by A. Phillip Randolph, who picked him to be the Chicago coordinator for the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Black wrote in “Sacred Ground” that as an activist, he needed the leadership of someone like King.


“He articulated the feeling that many of us carried from our childhood to our young adulthood: ‘I’m tired of the segregation,’ as Rosa Parks said,” Black recalled. “By that time I had been in World War II and had seen what can happen to human beings shooting each other. I had seen Buchenwald and had the feeling that across race lines we were going to return home and bring about peace on Earth. Dr. King articulated those feelings so early in my teaching career. I heard this handsome young man from a very upper class African American family identify his tiredness with the opportunity for equality and so I went South for the various marches. He was an inspiration because he was universal.”


President Lyndon Johnson had encouraged Dr. King to bring his campaign to a Northern city in order to break housing segregation, Black said. One of Black’s own DuSable classmates, the Rev. Patterson of Liberty Baptist Church (4849 S. King Drive), had been a few years ahead of Dr. King at Morehouse College and particularly wanted him to bring his mission to Chicago.


Black was also among those who encouraged King to come to Chicago in 1966 to help tenants organize against slums, although he had misgivings about the danger. Dr. King was hit in the head by a rock during a fair housing march in Marquette Park on the southwest side – a level of violence he said he had not even seen in the South.


“There were people who were white and black and Asian who could support Dr. King’s nonviolent resistance in the South, but they were not going to do that in the North,” Black said. “They were not going to take a beating and not retaliate. Marquette Park and Cicero would be too violent against Dr. King.”


Nevertheless, Black said that he didn’t think another northern city could have given Dr. King a better outcome. “He would not have had the kind of support from the leadership – political and religious – in any other city that he had in Chicago.” Dr. King’s 1966 campaign ended with a summit in which the Mortgage Bankers Association agreed to make loans regardless of race, and city officials agreed to build housing of limited height. However, by March 1967, Dr. King called a press conference to say that city officials had reneged, according to his Stanford University archives.


World War II and the 1950s had brought a second wave of the Great Migration. Just as with the first wave, war prevented European immigration, so jobs in steel mills, stockyards and war production had to be filled domestically. Mechanization had begun to reduce farm jobs in the South and blacks were eager to leave racial discrimination behind, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s American Experience website.


This second wave, however, “had been deprived of the opportunity to get a good education, to be able to vote and to organize because most of them were from plantations,” Black said in the telephone interview. “There was a separation classwise.”


Simultaneously, in 1940 the U.S. Supreme Court banned restrictive covenants (thanks to the father of “A Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry). African Americans could now move out of crowded Bronzeville and find more space in South Shore, Hyde Park or Kenwood, and that’s just what he and other returning veterans did after World War II when they wanted to start families, Black said.


An unintended effect of this new mobility, however, is that “now young people in Bronzeville were not growing up with doctors and lawyers and other successful people around them, the way I did,” Black wrote in “Sacred Ground.” “Those successful people were moving out. My generation could have done more to welcome these later arrivals from the South.”


What did he wish the Great Migration’s first wave had done for those who came North in the 1940s and ’50s?


“We integrated too fast,” Black said in the telephone interview. “An example of solidarity continuing despite class is Chinatown. They continued to have their political and economic base despite the fact they had been isolated since the 1890s.”


Just the same, the networking came together for the election of Harold Washington as the first African American mayor of Chicago in 1983. Washington was a few years younger than Black, another DuSable graduate and a returning World War II vet who also attended Roosevelt University with Black.


When Mayor Richard J. Daley died in 1977 after 21 years in office and Ald. Wilson Frost, the black president pro tem of the Chicago City Council, was kept out of the mayor’s seat, blacks began to seek more power, Black wrote.


In 1982, Washington agreed to run – if the community could register 50,000 new voters and raise $100,000.


Black and Renault Robinson, founder of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, visited Ed Gardner, the founder and owner of Soft Sheen hair products, (whose wife was a DuSable grad) and Gardner committed $250,000. Johnson Publishing’s John Johnson and real estate magnate Dempsey Travis raised $1 million more from smaller black businesses: car dealers, gas station owners, insurance executives. With support from Hispanic leaders like Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Luis Gutiérrez, and white community organizers like Slim Coleman and Helen Shiller on the North Side, Washington beat the white, Republican candidate for mayor.


Black's role had been to help craft Washington’s platform and to organize young people to carry out voter registration. In the process, he met, courted and married Zenobia Johnson, “the lasting love of my life,” who had been on Washington’s congressional housing task force.


The cycle begun with Washington’s election continued with the election of Carol Moseley Braun as the first African American woman senator and then Barack Obama as the first black president, Black said. He is proud that the Obama Presidential Library is coming to the South Side, although he says he wished its location was not Jackson Park but Washington Park, “where Michelle Obama and I helped her husband, where Harold Washington and Carol Moseley Braun were inspired by the leadership in that area around Washington Park.”


“Change is going to come. What role will you play?” Black said. “Obama is a dramatic example, as is Carol Moseley Braun, and the breakthrough of the early restrictive covenants. I want the reader to be optimistic through the history of one man who lived 101 years in the community he talked about.”