By Mischa Webley | Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods
Bob Boyer never thought he’d be here. A former boxer from West Philadelphia, he was 22 years old in 1961 when the U.S. Air Force transferred him to the local airbase vehicle maintenance division.
At the time, Oregon wasn’t a welcoming place for African Americans, having only then begun to finally upend the many segregation laws.
Nonetheless a tight-knit black community had formed in northeast Portland and, after he was discharged, Bob found work in an auto shop on Union Avenue and made himself at home.
At nearly age 80, Bob doesn’t need a resumé. If he did, it would read more like a short novel.
Among titles he’s held are: boxer, airman, auto mechanic, railyard worker, shipyard foreman, first African American elected president of the Inland Boatmen’s Union, community organizer, property manager, car salesman, small business owner, Concordia Neighborhood Association (CNA) president, Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods (NECN) chairman, NAACP Northwest Region vice president, and state senator.
It’s the intangibles that matter to him more: husband, father of eight, grandfather of 18; community linchpin, keeper of local history.
He’s grateful for the opportunities he’s been afforded. And he subscribes to the slogan, “When one door closes, another opens,” but added that you have to look for those openings.
When Bob comes in the door, he steps all the way through. But he makes sure to leave it open for those coming behind him. While pounding spikes in the railyards, working the docks as a longshoreman and starting a family in the 1960s, he found time to get his associates degree from Cascade Christian College, which he and others lobbied to rename Portland Community College.
Without missing a day of work, he became the first African American to graduate from Marylhurst University with a degree in business management.
Involvement in his union gave him a taste for politics, which he put to use. In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, it was hard to get the city government to pay attention to the needs of northeast Portland, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
As a member of the planning board for the mid-1960s Model Cities Initiative, an outgrowth of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Bob helped organize the first neighborhood associations in northeast Portland. That included CNA.
The community identified a way to speak as one to demand positive change, including renaming Union Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The way Bob sees it, if you want things to be different, you have no choice but to dive right in.
Editor’s note: This story was shortened for space considerations. For the full-length story that appeared in NECN’s Hey Neighbor! newsletter, visit ConcordiaPDX.org/bob-boyer.