By Glenn Reedus, Chicago Crusader
Two decades before Americans began to recognize December 7 as Pearl Harbor Day it was Timuel Black’s birthday. None of the descriptions used to define Black do justice to his near 98 years on this planet. Over the decades Black, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, has been described as a socialist, historian, political activist, professor, author, and social worker, among other titles.
Black will use his unique perspective to deliver a speech titled “Roles and Impact of African Americans in Chicago Politics,” at the Chicago Urban League’s IMPACT Leadership Development Program. IMPACT Leadership Development prepares mid-career African-American professionals in holding higher leadership positions in their careers.
There is no more authoritative voice than Black’s to inform this year’s fellows and audience about the obstacles to achievement in Black Chicago. He is viewed as one of the key influencers in getting the late Mayor Harold Washington to successfully run making him the city’s first African-American mayor, and because of his work in Chicago’s civil rights and labor communities, he was tapped by A. Phillip Randolph to coordinate the Illinois delegation for the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.
This was the march that introduced the world to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Black, however had met Dr. King several years earlier when Black flew to Birmingham, Ala., after watching a television show that featured Dr. King speaking. It was 1956 when Dr. King accepted Black’s invitation to speak at the University of Chicago. The turnout was so large the venue was changed to a larger facility on campus. Black said “even the Rockefeller Chapel proved to be too small.”
Black told the Crusader like so many others he was surprised at the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential race. He then spoke of the early years of Black political influence in Chicago. He noted that the forced confinement of Black people to what was described as the Black Belt forged opportunities to elect Black politicians such as Oscar DePriest, the city’s first African-American alderman and Congressman William L. Dawson.
That confinement, according to Black, spurred the development of what Black described as “parallel institutions.” He noted that being contained in an area bounded by 26th Street to the Rock Island Railroad tracks (currently the Dan Ryan Expressway) to 39th Street to the west side of Cottage Grove Avenue, fueled the desire for Blacks to operate successful insurance companies, banks, religious institutions, and social and cultural outlets. He added there was a strong unity among the people in the Black Belt and that culminated in Black candidates being elected to a variety of local governmental offices. He explained DePriest migrated from Florence, Ala. shortly before the first great migration at the end of WWI. In running for office he was able to appeal to people who were leaving the South for three primary reasons, according to Black. They were escaping from the violence fostered by the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations, as well as being able to find work here, and provide their children with better educational opportunities, according to Black.
Black noted the African-American politicians in the DePriest and Dawson eras endured the double challenge of racism and delivering for their respective constituency. He explained “in those early days the Black migrants proportionately outvoted their European counterparts.
“Blacks voted heavily. Blacks voted very heavily… that was part of the political culture.
“They had the numbers to not only elect local politicians, they would also be able to threaten and demand from the mayor and the governor things that they needed.
“We had a theme – ‘we put you in we can take you out’-and that went beyond the aldermanic level. Because of that concentration, the wealth of the Black Belt was cumulative. There were businesses that Blacks owned, including banks, insurance companies and others. We had another saying – ‘don’t spend your money where you can’t work’.”
He clarified the population density in the Black Belt with an estimate that the neighboring white Hyde Park/Kenwood community had a population of approximately 27,000, while in the same amount of space in the Black Belt, the population was about 80,000. The power base eroded as Black soldiers returned from the war, including Black, and demanded that housing be made available to them outside of the Black Belt. He noted that ultimately the remaining housing and the high-rise projects built in the 1960s became home for less-skilled, and poorly educated African Americans. The lack of education and skills resulted in technology replacing many jobs people had left the South to take.
A DuSable High School graduate and classmate of Nat King Cole and Johnson Publishing Company founder, John H. Johnson, Black noted his presentation at IMPACT was keeping in line with his mission these days, I am trying to help people in your generation and the ones behind you that the struggle goes on and the secret to success is unity and political activity.”
IMPACT is in its third year and has worked with approximately 170 professionals. All “fellows” are African American leaders who have been recognized for their accomplishments. The Urban League offered, “the Chicago Urban League strives to move the needle toward racial parity in leadership positions by developing and supporting emerging African American leaders.
“Each year, IMPACT selects a cohort of around 30 African American professionals between the ages of 30-45 years old who hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and have at least seven years of increasingly responsible professional experience. Moreover, successful candidates have a strong, demonstrated record of civic leadership.”
IMPACT fellows are required to submit letters of recommendation, as well as participate in a formal interview. Those who are selected are considered to have exceptional personal and professional accomplishments, leadership potential and a commitment to civic engagement.
Here is a link to the most recent class of fellows www.the chicagourbanleague.org.