CHICAGO – Labor organizer, educator, author and civil rights activist Timuel Black Jr. died Wednesday. He was 102.
Black entered hospice care in his South Side Chicago home more than two weeks ago, his wife, Zenobia Johnson-Black, told USA TODAY.
“I hope to celebrate his life every day of my life,” Johnson-Black said. “He was trying to make this world a better place. And that’s what he urged others to do. So that’s how I hope he’ll be remembered.”
Former President Barack Obama said “the world lost an icon” with Black’s passing Wednesday.
“Tim spent decades chronicling and lifting up Black Chicago history. But he also made plenty of history himself,” Obama said in a statement. Black attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
The grandson of enslaved people, Black as an infant survived the influenza pandemic of 1918. His family from migrated from Alabama to Chicago in 1919, arriving shortly after the deadly race riots in the city that year.
Black was an Army soldier in World War II, where he faced discrimination in the ranks despite earning four bronze battle stars. He was part of the Normandy invasion and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He visited the Buchenwald concentration camp after it was liberated. Those experiences, he said, changed him.
“When bombs were dropping and boys were shooting – I don’t believe world wars are the answer, but I was there – that somehow I was going to come home, and therefore when I saw the destruction that could happen to human beings by other human beings even more deeply, I thought I had a responsibility to bring about change: peace, justice and equality,” Black told USA TODAY in February.
When he returned, Black attended Roosevelt University in Chicago and received a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. He later taught at the City Colleges of Chicago.
In 1963, Black led a contingent from Chicago to the March on Washington. Twenty years later, he helped elect the first Black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington.
He attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
Last year, Black witnessed the uprising against racial injustice and police brutality. He said he saw a direct throughline from the civil rights movement to the Black Lives Matter Movement.
“Though the struggle goes on, I am encouraged by younger generations, in particular, across races and gender,” Black told USA TODAY. “They’re fighting to make things better economically, socially, politically for everyone, not just for themselves.”
Johnson-Black thanked people around the country Wednesday for “all the support and love” given to their family in Black’s final days.
Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., said Black was the first activist he ever knew.
“He was my mentor. He’s my #1 activist in America,” Davis said.
Black was a passionate educator who always pushed students to remain in school and get an education no matter the obstacles they faced, Davis said.
“I’ve run into so many people who said that Tim caused them to stay in school when they wanted to quit or drop out,” he said.
Davis said people knew this sad day would come, but he’s grateful that he had the opportunity to work with Black for so many years.
“Tim was so big, ubiquitous that he just simply devoted his whole life to causes,” he said. “He tried to help the world to become a better world. He wanted the world to be the world we dreamed about and hoped for.”