The 1980s weren’t an easy time to be a black leader in Boston. The rancor of the busing era hung in the air like smog. Many people in Roxbury felt, with some justification, that white Bostonians didn’t want them here. Into that humid atmosphere stepped Bruce Bolling, a seemingly reluctant politician carrying out his legacy as a member of one of Roxbury’s leading families.
Elected to the Boston City Council in 1981, when he was in his mid-30s, Bolling was the face of a new Boston, bridging old divides. Over the next 12 years, whether as a Roxbury district councilor, the first black council president, or an at-large member, Bolling spoke for Boston’s black community as its most prominent official. With violence and drug-dealing marring life in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, Bolling worked with then-Mayor Raymond Flynn to bring more protection and resources into the neighborhoods.
His roles as spokesman for an underprivileged community and broker for city services sometimes seemed in tension. When a taxi driver declined to pick him up outside City Hall, Bolling erupted in fury, giving voice to an under-the-radar frustration for many black people working downtown. More often, in racially sensitive situations, he stood in the eye of the storm, trying to avoid sparking the kind of protests that hobbled Boston in the 1970s.
With his calm, professional manner, he struck some voters, of all races, as a potential mayor. But when he finally ran, in 1993, he was underfunded and at times seemed unprepared. Many observers questioned whether his heart was really in it.
After his loss, he lived quietly with his wife, Joyce Ferriabough, and son Bruce Jr. For Bolling, who died on Tuesday of prostate cancer, domestic tranquility was a reward for more than a decade in the trenches, struggling to make Boston a better place.