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Robert Blackwell, he did it his way
"An athlete, scholar, soldier, diplomat, father and first Black Mayor of Highland Park"
By all accounts, the city of Highland Park, Michigan is not one of the major metropolitan areas in the country, but the extraordinary life and legacy of Robert "Bob" B. Blackwell, the city's first Black mayor, has placed it on the map. He was bigger than life in every thing that he did, as was his physique. The "B" in his name may very well have stood for "big" for he was affectionately called "Big Bob."
Like many Black families during the early part of the last century, Blackwell migrated from the South with his family settling first in Detroit and then Highland Park. He had just served in the U.S. Army in World War II where he attained the rank of Master Sergeant in the 41st Engineer Regiment and along the way, he earned three Battle Stars: a World War II Victory Ribbon, a Good-Conduct Medal and an American Defense Medal. Knowing that he was planning to raise a family, after receiving an honorable discharge from the military, Blackwell decided to continue his education. He earned a degree in Chemistry at Howard University, Washington, D.C. and later on got his law degree from Detroit College of Law.
It was also in the nation's capital where he married the former Florrie Love Willis in 1945 before they moved to Detroit with their first child, Brenda. Blackwell began his mission of helping people at the Chrysler Corporation (Tank Division) in 1950 and was quickly elevated to a high administrative division. He also served as the first Black president of Chrysler Local 889 Union, which led him to be noticed by then Michigan Governor George Romney who appointed him as the executive director of the Michigan Labor Relations Board. There, he was called upon to mediate and settle a massive teacher's strike, one of the longest in Detroit's history.
About the same time, Blackwell realized that his beloved city of Highland Park lacked African American leadership, so he decided to remedy that. He became the city's first Black planning commissioner, the first Black police and fire commissioner, the first Black city councilman, and in 1968, he became Highland Park's first Black mayor, where he served for 16 years. Blackwell was the nation's first Black full-time mayor and he was a Republican.
While his career was spiraling upward, the Blackwells (Bob and Florrie) also added to their family. They eventually had three other children: June, Arthur and Bobbi.
During his 16 years as mayor, Blackwell led Highland Park to new horizons via major accomplishments even though, by comparison, his city stood in the shadow of Detroit, one of the nation's big metropolitan areas. As the city's chief executive, he was able to secure more than $42 million in federal grants that improved the quality of life for its residents and also completed the fastest residential-industrial urban renewal project in HUD's history, which the federal government called "a model city." Blackwell also served as special assistant in the U.S. Department of Labor and a consultant on public housing in Ghana and Nigeria.
Blackwell was able to convince Chrysler Corporation to remain in Highland Park and build its world headquarters there increasing the city's valuation tax from $1.2 million to $3.5 million. After leaving the mayor's office, he served as Wayne County Commissioner for eight years, succeeding his son, Arthur who himself had been a commissioner for a number of years. So too was his grandson, Moe Blackwell, who is presently a commissioner.
He was an active member of the NAACP, the Urban League, Kappi Alphi Psi Fraternity and the guardsmen. Blackwell was once selected "Man of the Year" by the Detroit chapter of Howard University alumni. He loved to travel, participate in sports and became an excellent golfer.
It had been a long road from Meridian, Mississippi where "Big Bob" was born on November 4, 1921. Before he passed on December 16, 2008, he was thrilled to have seen the election of the nation's first Black president. The measure of his life can be told by observing the people who came to walk the last steps with him. They included U.S. Senator Carl Levin, Congress-members, John Conyers, Carolyn Kilpatrick, Michigan's Governor Jennifer Granholm and Detroit's Mayor Kenneth Cockrell, Jr.
Robert "Bob" B. Blackwell is gone but he is not forgotten; he did it his way.