Longtime community activist Robert Hickman dies at 79

Robert "Bobby" Hickman was the co-founder of the Inner City Youth League in St. Paul, Minn. He died last week at the age of 79.
Jerry Holt / The Star Tribune via AP 2005

St. Paul has lost a forceful voice who served as a bridge for young people trying to find their way in life.

Robert Hickman, a long-time community activist and educator, died Jan. 28. He was 79.

A St. Paul native, Hickman was among the founders of the Inner City Youth League, which was a beacon of hope to black youngsters.

This week, friends and those he mentored, who called him Bobby — and later in his life, Kofi — recalled his years of service.

In the 1960s, when the St. Paul public schools taught very little about African-American history, community activists created the youth league to give their history a voice.

Bill Wilson, principal at Higher Ground Academy
Bill Wilson, principal at Higher Ground Academy.
Tom Weber / MPR News

"So we taught the history, and the children, our students, took the history into the classrooms," recalled Bill Wilson, another league founder who became St. Paul's first African-American City Council member.

The league also allowed students to become agents of change, said Wilson, now executive director of the Higher Ground Academy, a St. Paul Charter School.

"It gave young people a sense that if we have a past we also have a future," he said.

Hickman's extended family has deep roots in St. Paul traced back to an African-American preacher who founded Minnesota's oldest black church, Pilgrim Baptist, in 1863.

Ron Edwards, another community activist who helped found the youth league, met Hickman as part of a Twin Cities semi-pro football team in 1959.

He said the league's home at the corner of Selby Avenue and Victoria Street in St. Paul was the gift of Theodore Hamm, an heir to the brewing fortune.

"He sold us the building for one dollar," Edwards said.

Other early funders included the Wilder and Hill Family foundations.

Two of St. Paul's first African-American police officers were early supporters. Officer Jimmy Mann became its first chairman of the board and Officer James Griffin also played a key role.

At the time, the Police Department had a rocky relationship with African-Americans.

In a 2005 interview, Hickman recalled that many young African-American men and boys felt targeted by the police.

"They always knew that they were at risk," he said. "All they had to do was walk outside their pool hall and probably get nabbed for one thing or another as one of the usual suspects."

Bobby Hickman's funeral
Bobby Hickman's flag-draped casket being taken out of New Hope Baptist Church in St. Paul after his funeral, Feb. 5, 2015. Hickman was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Toni Randolph / MPR News

Hickman used his voice to speak about the conditions for African-Americans in the 1960s, when unemployment was high and housing discrimination was common.

Inside the community, black elders were alarmed at a growing chasm between them and young African-Americans. At that time, Hickman said in the interview, the fear of street violence made many older residents stay in their homes.

When St. Paul officials created a beautification program to employ some black teenagers for a summer, Hickman went to pool halls to recruit workers.

He got the young men's attention when he told them that older blacks worried about purse snatchings.

"These older ladies who worked at Highland Park cleaning up people's homes and stuff ... They got paid in cash a lot of times before they could get to their crib their purse would be snatched," Hickman said. "Think about that you guys, I don't know anybody in this crowd who does that, but think about it."

In public and in private Hickman was a forceful personality who advocated for equality, said former Deputy Mayor Paul Williams, one of the young men Hickman mentored.

"He would greet me warmly, you know, followed by, 'Hey, make sure you get this right,'" recalled Williams, now executive director of Project for Pride Living, a Minneapolis based non-profit that develops and manages housing.

"And that is both a statement of 'I love you, and I have very high expectations for you.'"

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