He had a rich, resonant baritone voice that carried effortlessly from the stage. It also boomed off the walls of the St. Paul City Council chambers as he called city officials to task for questionable hiring practices, friction between police and the black community or inequities in educational opportunity.
But, most of all, the voice of Robert “Bobby” Hickman could be heard encouraging black youths to find their promise — through the arts, through social activism, employment and politics.
Hickman, 79, a co-founder of St. Paul’s Inner City Youth League whose St. Paul roots go back several generations, died last week. His distinctive voice may be silenced, his daughter Robin Hickman said Wednesday, but his legacy will live on.
“It was amazing,” she said of Inner City, housed at the corner of Selby Avenue and Victoria Street. “We participated in everything — in the visual and performing arts, in media, photography, sports, dance. We learned about social justice and our history, our cultural awareness.
“It was a community center where black kids could bask in all the possibilities.”
Hickman’s ancestors founded St. Paul’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, the city’s oldest black church. He grew up in the old Rondo neighborhood, the heart of St. Paul’s black community. His mother was a sister of Gordon Parks, the photographer, author and film director who began his career in St. Paul.
Hickman lied about his age to enter the Air Force at 16, his daughter said. He worked as a mechanical engineer in the service before returning to St. Paul and an airline job. When he came home, social issues — namely the fight for civil rights and calls for “black power” — found a willing leader. In 1967, the then 31-year-old Hickman was working to give black teens positive and creative outlets for their energy and ambitions.
“These kids see nothing but a lot of emptiness, no visible change from the way their parents had it,” he told the Minneapolis Star at the time. “We’re attempting to instill in them pride and self-respect. For it to be real to them, they have to be able to apply it.”
A year later, Hickman was establishing Inner City Youth League, with the stated goal of finding jobs for black youths.
“Rioting, burning and throwing bricks is black foolishness, not black power,” he told the Star in 1968. “We try to restore pride and dignity to the youth, giving them a sense of belonging in the community.”
In 2012, Hickman wrote an article about the origins of the Inner City Youth League for St. Paul Almanac.
“The youth responded to our call to have meetings and tell us ‘older folks’ what their concerns were …‘We don’t have any decent places to go … and there are no jobs available, we have to go out of our neighborhood to school. The police are brutal and disrespectful to our whole community. We have no black businesses. We’re crammed into houses that are not decent to live in, our so-called leaders are someplace else, and don’t listen to our concerns. Who is here to teach us what we need to know?’ ”
Hickman would go on to serve as executive director for 20 years. He and his brother also ran a tax service in the Summit-University neighborhood, and he would make two unsuccessful runs for a St. Paul City Council seat.
“His work was also about community and economic development,” Robin Hickman said. “He was a champion of quality of life for black people.”
Hickman’s voice became a powerful, valued and sometimes scathing contributor on a number of city commissions and task forces during the 1970s and 1980s. Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer said Hickman’s opinion was valued because he was unafraid to hold elected and police leaders to task.
“Bobby chose his issues carefully. As a consequence, he was listened to,” Latimer said. “There is no point in appointing people who want to be agreeable. Real leaders will go against the grain when necessary. Real leaders will pick their issues, so they are on strong ground. If there was anyone who would not say something just to please people, it would be Bobby Hickman.”
In later years, Hickman worked at the City Inc. in Minneapolis. He traveled to Africa, where elders there bestowed the name “Kofi” upon him.
“He was very proud of that,” Robin Hickman said.
Even after becoming ill, he volunteered to work with young people at St. Paul’s Gordon Parks High School. In his late 70s, he returned to college. Hickman was awarded his bachelor of arts degree from Metropolitan State University on the day he died.
A few years ago, Latimer said, he saw Hickman out in the community. The two old sometimes adversaries exchanged a wave and a few respectful words. Their hair was white. Latimer noted that Hickman “looked a little wan. He didn’t quite have that old energy.”
His voice, though. That voice. It still resonated.
“When he spoke, he didn’t have to raise his voice,” Latimer said of those times at community gatherings or the City Council. “He just commanded attention.”
Services for Hickman are scheduled for Thursday at New Hope Baptist Church, 712 Bradley St. in St. Paul. Visitation will begin at 9 a.m., with the funeral to start at 11 a.m.