Athens, Ala. – As representatives from the Huntsville Rockets football team walked into Applebee’s to come on Applebee’s Tailgate Talk, I noticed an older gentleman was with them. After the show was over, I went over to the table where he was sitting and introduced myself. We shook hands and he said, “I’m Robert L. Boykin.” As soon as he began talking, I knew I wanted to sit down and talk to him so I pulled up a chair. The conversation that day interested me so much that I wanted to talk to Mr. Boykin more, so I arranged a visit at his home in Huntsville. I wanted to know more from this man who served in WWII.
Robert L. Boykin was born in Woodland, Alabama, in Randolph County in 1923. Mr. Boykin described his family as “cane farmers.” Boykin said his grandfather, Mack Boykin, was a tough man, but a hospitable man. Being a successful farming family in first half of the 1900’s in the south, brought its share of challenges, but Boykin said his father, John W. Boykin, and grandfather, Mack, stood their ground. Boykin said his family was friends with both whites and blacks. When it came to his friendships, he said they respected each other.
Mr. Boykin attended Woodland High School and was a successful baseball player. Unfortunately, Mr. Boykin was sent to war before he could finish school. After finishing basic training in Ohio, Mr. Boykin served his country in the European Theater in Paris, France, during WWII. For a black man in the U.S. Army, life was different. Mr. Boykin spoke of having to stay on the bottom of a military ship and not being allowed to go to certain levels because of the color of his skin. On a positive note, Mr. Boykin told the story of becoming the driver for an Army general. He said that he was at his post when the general walked in. The general told him that he had seen him driving a truck and liked the way he drove. The general told Boykin that he wanted him to drive for him. Boykin said that he told the general he would have to get permission from the officer above him to leave his post. When he spoke with his ranking officer he told him that the general was above him, so he needed to do what the general requested. At that time, Boykin became the driver for the general and he would be the general’s driver throughout his time in the service.
During our conversation, Mr. Boykin described both good and bad experiences during WWII. At one point, he took out his billfold and pulled out a picture of him and a young boy. He said the boy was a young German he had come in contact with during the war in Europe.
These many years later, Mr. Boykin still expresses great sadness when talking about fellow comrades who were lost in battle. Like so many, the war had an powerful affect on Mr. Boykin’s life.
When Mr. Boykin came back to the States, he made his home in Ohio. With a love of baseball still in his heart, he said he tried out for the Detroit Tigers. Ultimately, he played some ball for a team in Dayton before finding success in small business. During our conversation, Mr. Boykin had held up his left hand to show me the affect of wearing a poorly made glove while playing third base. Of his small business, Boykin said he did very well selling cars and operating a car wash in nearby Pennsylvania.
During his time in business, although he still faced some adversity simply for the color of his skin, he said he provided many jobs to people both black and white. In spite of the times, Mr. Boykin was a fair man. Mr. Boykin attributed his treatment of others to the way that he was raised.
Mr. Boykin eventually found his way back to Alabama. He and his wife of 41 years, Merle, now call Huntsville home. At 93, Mr. Boykin enjoys watching the teams his son, Jason, coaches.
Whether it’s J.O. Johnson or the Huntsville Rockets, Mr. Boykin says he likes to talk to young people and encourage them. Mr. Boykin has much to share if people are willing to slow down and just pull up a chair.