Bobbie Bonner Nunn, educator, longtime civil rights activist and a Portland icon, died Sept. 24. She was 82.
"She was a tireless workaholic for civil rights," said Myrtle Carr her friend for more than 60 years and a former NAACP secretary. "She was a trail blazer and a community activist. She has given so much of herself at all times. You could always count on Bobbie Nunn."
Born Bobbie Bonner on Sept. 16, 1924, in Muskogee, Okla. to Robert Bonner and Ophelia Crawford Bonner. Her father died when she was 10. The remainder of her youth was spent in Texas, home to her aunts and cousins. She told her son, Joe Nunn, she learned to love travel and to not to be afraid to take chances from her Aunt Hattie.
In Texas, she attended Prairie View A&M in Hemstead and Tillotson College near Houston. That was where she began to play clarinet and saxophone, said Joe Nunn.
"In those days young Black women were all chaperoned and they were not supposed to be out alone," Joe Nunn said. "But she had her own all-women jazz group and they would sneak out and play at jazz clubs in downtown Houston."
In the early 1940s, Joe Nunn said, Tillotson was known for its bands and big jazz names such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, who would visit the college. Nunn played so well that both Count Basie and Duke Ellington invited her to New York to try out for their bands. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-women jazz outfit, also tried to hire her.
Joe Nunn said that shortly before her death his mother told him, "You know, here I was going to try out for those bands, but your father asked me to marry him – and he was being sent out to the Philippines."
Bobbie Nunn told her son she never picked up an instrument again. Instead, at age 19, she married 26-year-old Josiah Nunn III, from New Gasney, Ark., one of a group of Black U.S. army officers who fought in WWII. It was a loving partnership that was to last until Josiah Nunn's death.
By 1942 Bobbie Nunn's mother and stepfather, Robert G. Ford, were living in Vanport where many African Americans found work in the Vancouver shipyards. Ford is remembered as one of the first Black teachers in Oregon. In 1944 Bobbie Nunn moved to Portland and her husband joined her in 1945. The couple's daughter, Darla Louise, was born in March of 1947; their son Joe was born in October 1948.
Both Josiah and Bobbie Nunn were active members of the NAACP and worked with former Oregon governor and U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, to pass Oregon's first civil rights legislation the Accommodations Bill of 1951. The legislation was badly needed. At that time it was not uncommon to see signs downtown with messages such as "White Trade Only," and a kind of unofficial segregation – redlining – prevented Blacks from renting or buying housing in much of the city. In addition, discrimination barred African Americans from many educational and employment opportunities.
The partnership between Bobbie and Josiah was ahead of its time. After finishing his degree, Josiah worked as a teacher by day and a supermarket clerk by night for 10 years. The money went to sending Bobbie, first to PSU, then to the University of Portland, so that she too could have a career as a teacher. In political battles, Bobbie often was the one in the spotlight, taking the heat and Josiah always supported her right to be there, says Joe Nunn.
"He was the one who had quiet courage; she was the one with fire and ice. She had the passion. Mom was not a traditional person. She believed in equality and she did it her own way."
Joe Nunn said that after receiving accolades in her first teaching job, she was hired to teach at Laurelhurst elementary, considered a prestigious place to work. But when the faculty learned a "negro" teacher was to join them, they signed a petition against the hiring. The principal stood up for her, however, and Nunn stood the course.
"Some of those who were most vociferous wanting to keep her out became some of her best friends," Joe Nunn said.
Throughout her life Bobbie Nunn fought for equality for all people, taking on all kinds of battles in education, housing, health and employment. A leader in the NAACP, the Urban League, her sorority and Portland Links, she fought for Head Start programs, youth programs, public housing and for equality in hiring. At the school district she became an administrator in the human resources department. Her efforts helped bring about the inclusion of African American girls in the Rose Festival Court. And she encouraged many young African Americans to pursue careers in politics and education.
"When I first came to Portland in 1967 I was short a year and a half of my degree and we couldn't even get a job as a teacher assistant at that time," said state Sen. Margaret Carter. "It was Bobbie Nunn who stood up and made recommendations for me in terms of my credentials and that's when I went back to school. Bobbie Nunn would fight those kinds of issues with the school district. She was not afraid. She was a very brave, very courageous woman.
"Blacks could not live across Williams Avenue when Bobbie Nunn first came here – she was one of those people who dared to do so. She never minded at all being the first in the line to make a difference.
"It's hard for me to choose one achievement and talk about it, because she did so much,"
Carter said. "Bobbie Nunn will be greatly – I mean very sorely — missed."
Nunn worked with former City Commissioner Charles Jordan on the Model Cities project that aimed to make communities more livable. One of that project's achievements was to create a park for the Woodlawn neighborhood. Another achievement was her work with Dr. John McNulty to help found an Alzheimers care center in Northeast Portland, the Marie Smith Center.
Nunn also was an active member of St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church. A founding member of its Anti-Racism Commission, for the diocese of Oregon, Nunn helped foster equality and community within the church.
"She was a very vibrant woman and she had a good head on her shoulders," said the Rev. Alcena Boozer. Intellectually she was very competent and very skilled at looking at the underlying issues. And she was a very sensitive person on a personal level."
Nunn was not above rolling up her sleeves and getting to work. Many Saturdays you could find her in the church kitchen preparing food for a meal the church offers to anyone who needed it," Boozer said.
"Once we had to clean and prepare mustard greens for 150 people, so she was in the kitchen cleaning a mountain of greens."
Roy Jay knew Bobbie Nunn for more than 50 years and was with her shortly before her death. Jay said Nunn knew hundreds of families, their histories and the history of Portland's African American community.
"Being an educator and involved with the school district she would always tell us about the importance of going to school and getting an education and just doing the right thing," he said. "She was a kind and gentle spirit but at the same time she was very firm about making sure that we as a community understood about being empowered and about being educated beyond just sports and singing. So she was always a guiding light."
Nunn expressed her community and personal pride in the way she dressed and carried herself, Jay said. "She always lit up a room and she just loved to wear St. John's outfits. That was her trademark. She just loved St. John's outfits. Mrs. Nunn knew how to dress."
Funeral arrangements are pending. A memorial service will be arranged for either Sept. 15 or 16 at St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church. Rose City Cemetery is handling funeral arrangements.