Obituary for Billie Boykins: Former license collector, state representative
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 17, 2010 - Billie Jean Anthony Boykins, the former St. Louis license collector and state representative, died Monday, bringing to an end a life that was at once trailblazing and tumultuous.
Mrs. Boykins, 64, died at Barnes-Jewish Hospital from heart complications. She will be remembered by her friends and family at a Celebration of Life event on Saturday.
After working effectively behind the scenes in politics, Mrs. Boykins was elected to the Missouri House in 1978, representing the city's 82nd District. She served until 1982, when she left the House to run for license collector for St. Louis. She won, and in 1983 Mrs. Boykins became the first and only woman to date to serve in that office. Her elective political career took a turn after a drug arrest in 1988 and ended a year later with her removal from the license collector's office by the Missouri Supreme Court.
Along the way, Mrs. Boykins faced a series of health problems. She was a heart transplant recipient and battled both lung and breast cancer. Her friends and colleagues remember her for her pluck and courage in the face of adversity.
One of those friends is former state Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis. "Billie would have something and just bounce right back and move on," said Coleman.
Mrs. Boykins served as Coleman's chief of staff for three years, beginning in 2002.
"I had only been in the House a year, when I got elected to the Senate," said Coleman. "It was obvious to me that I needed someone who knew the ropes and knew her way around Jefferson City, as well as St. Louis politics. But most of all, I needed someone who was smart. That was Billie.
"She made my office hum," Coleman added. "Because of Billie, my legislation was well researched and moved through the legislative process well."
Mrs. Boykins, a lifelong St. Louisan, graduated from Vashon High School. She married Luther T. Boykins Sr. and had two children. They later divorced. Together they owned and ran several businesses, including a barber shop, the PBK cleaning company, and a convenience store on Shreve Avenue where Luther Boykins' plumbing and light supply company is currently located.
Mrs. Boykins campaigned as a reform candidate when she sought the license collector's office. But she ran into trouble five years later when she was arrested on drug possession charges after authorities stopped her on Interstate 55 in Illinois. She was sentenced to a short jail term. A year later, a state audit found that, as license collector, Mrs. Boykins had failed to collect millions of dollars in business taxes. The Missouri Supreme Court removed Mrs. Boykins from the collector's office for "willful violation and neglect of duty."
Weathering the Storm
Mrs. Boykins fought to keep her job and she had the support of many allies including then U.S. Rep. William L. Clay, for whom Mrs. Boykins had worked briefly in 1981.
''The decision was harsh," Clay told the Post-Dispatch at the time. "The punishment was meted out unfairly."
Mrs. Boykins had been supportive of Clay's political life and he had encouraged her to run for elective office because of her involvement in community activities, particularly in Carr Square Village.
"She was active with the people, organizing them to make sure they received their rights," Clay said after Mrs. Boykins' death. "She was always fighting to protect the interests of ordinary people: the poor, consumers, those in public housing. She joined with other leaders like Harriett Woods and Gwen Giles to advance the rights of women. The community misses her kind of leadership."
Mrs. Boykins' controversial tenure as collector of revenue was reported on across the nation, hitting the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. It was also chronicled in St. Louis Politics: The Triumphant of Tradition, a 2002 book by Lana Stein, political science professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"It was a sad piece of history," Stein said. "I saw the degree of ease and camaraderie between blacks and whites diminished. She seemed to have great promise when she was elected, and it all went down in flames."
But Mrs. Boykins' niece, former Alderwoman Bennice Jones King, D-21st Ward, said her aunt's spirits were never extinguished.
"With all that she went through, it never stopped her from keeping focus, from making sure that government did what it needed to do to assist people," Jones King said.
A Lifetime of Activism
Mrs. Boykins attended St. Louis Community College, Harris Stowe State College, St. Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she received a degree in political science. She served as a 5th Ward Democratic committeewoman and later as legislative assistant to Rep. Mary Bland, D-Kansas City, and subsequently as chief of staff to Coleman.
In 1988, Mrs. Boykins helped lead Rev. Jesse Jackson's primary election efforts in St. Louis. She told the Post-Dispatch that Jackson's life resonated with her.
He talked "about how he and his mother had been born illegitimately,'' Mrs. Boykins said. ''Unfortunately, many of us are born in such a fashion. I don't even think the term 'illegitimate' should be used.''
Mrs. Boykins' numerous affiliations and civic commitments included serving as St. Nicholas Church committeewoman; executive secretary of the Fifth Ward Democratic Organization; First Congressional District vice chairman; Missouri Legislative Black Caucus delegate; Democratic State Committee member; Democratic State Committee and executive secretary; Model Cities Executive Board chairman; Carr Central Neighborhood Council member; chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Community Development; Northside Resource Council chairman; Council Neighborhood Organization member; Missouri Black Leadership Association member, and a member of Women United for Progress.
She has received honors and awards from many organizations, including the Model Cities Executive Board; First Congressional District; Missouri Association of Public Employees and the Fifth Ward Democratic Organization.
A Celebration of Life
"Aunt Billie was the strength of our family," said Jones King. "She never counted people out, never short-changed or neglected them. "She influenced us to do the same, telling us that you can't make changes by looking in from the outside."
Mrs. Boykins was preceded in death by her parents, Annie L. Nunn Anthony and Velpo Anthony.
She is survived by her daughter, Amber Carolyn "Holly" Boykins, a former Missouri state representative, and her son, Luther T. Boykins, Jr., both of St. Louis. She is also survived by four sisters: Shirley J. Smith (Sonny); Cizerine "Renie" Ford (Kermit); Bettye Campbell (Emmett, deceased) and Terri Tyler, all of St. Louis.
She donated her organs through Barnes-Jewish Hospital. It became another point of influence.
"We were rewarded with more than 15 years with her because of 'Miss Molly,' her transplanted heart, so all of us (family members) are going to be organ donors, too," said Jones King.
A Celebration of Life, reminiscent of the parties Mrs. Boykins gave, will be held from 4-9 p.m., Sat., March 20, at St. Louis Gateway Classic, 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, St. Louis, Mo 63106.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials in Mrs. Boykins' name to the Katy Ann Foundation, 4135 Shreve Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63115, to provide scholarships for youths and assistance to families.
Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.