Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black
By Timuel D. Black Jr., as told to Susan Klonsky, edited by Bart Schultz.
Northwestern University Press. 198 pages.
This wonderful personal memoir, published shortly after the author's one hundredth birthday (December 7, 2018), tells of growing up in Chicago as part of "The Great Migration" of blacks to the North. Timuel Blacks parents arrived in Chicago in 1919 when he was about eight months old and settled in the African American community known as Bronzeville.
Black, who produced two volumes of oral histories of Bronzeville residents and is currently working on a third volume, sees this kind of storytelling as a key to our understanding of an important cultural history. He writes, "It seemed to me that both our physical history, the spaces and places of my Sacred Ground, and our spiritual history, our stories and memories, were being systematically destroyed." He decided to tell his own story at the urging of friends, including fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel.
Sacred Ground came about through a series of interviews conducted with Black over several year's by public schools activist Susan Klonsky. Black had served in the 1990s as a community adviser for The Small Schools Workshop, co-founded by Klonsky and her husband, Michael. The interviews were edited by Bart Schultz, director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago's Office of Civic Engagement, which, among other things, conducts tours of Chicago's historic South Side led by Timuel Black.
For Black, oral history is important because it tells first-hand stories about everyday people's lives. "To those who consider oral history soft' history, or somehow less valid," he writes, "I would say, it's the people who are left out of history whose stories we are collecting and saving.
"I'm telling stories that I hope capture a feeling, a spirit of what this place and its people have meant," he continues, "not just to me, but to our city and our country." Black's own story, his full century of participation in that place and with the people there, makes this book a powerful capturing of that spirit. "I believe my life is fairly representative of the lives of many of the children of migrants from the Deep South," Black states in the introduction. "My story's typical-ness is precisely where its value lies."
In the book's title, and throughout its pages, Black refers to his South Side neighborhood as "Sacred Ground." It is, he...