Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Rudolph V. Tolbert, 81, Vietnam Army veteran, Boeing employee, and community activist

Mr. Tolbert's experiences serving with the Army overseas and as a White House page taught him how to use diplomacy in everyday life. The skills came in handy later, when he worked at Boeing and as a community activist.

Rudolph V. Tolbert
Rudolph V. TolbertRead moreCourtesy of the Tolbert Family (custom credit)

Rudolph V. Tolbert, 81, of Mount Airy, a Vietnam Army veteran, Boeing Co. employee, and community activist, died Wednesday, Jan. 15, of respiratory failure at Chestnut Hill Hospital.

Mr. Tolbert, who had adopted the Swahili name Juhudi Mshale ya Kazana, had been ill for several years.

Born in Harrisburg, he lived in Japan with his family as a boy, and then in Washington, D.C., and Maryland before moving to Philadelphia in 1966. His father, a physicist, could not find work in the United States in the post-World War II era because of his race.

Mr. Tolbert took reserve officer training classes at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, followed by a three-year assignment as a White House page. He was deployed overseas, serving in Vietnam from 1962 to 1965. He was honorably discharged with the rank of specialist and was decorated for being a sharpshooter.

His military and White House experience taught him about diplomacy in everyday life. His family said he used those skills as the first black member of Boeing’s electronics quality control division, inspecting airplanes as they rolled off the production line in the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

“He talked about how challenging it was, given his age and race,” said his wife, Sonja “Sunni” Green Tolbert.

From there, Mr. Tolbert moved to a professional role as a community activist. He founded the nonprofit Northwest Tenants Organization, one of the first groups in the city to use legal action, community organizing, and public education to help black people secure tenant and home-ownership rights in Germantown and Mount Airy.

“He was executive director, and he hired law school students,” said his wife. “Later, if they passed the bar, they became the basic staff.”

Mr. Tolbert then worked in various aspects of community economic development, including with the Delaware Valley Community Reinvestment Fund and the Southwest Germantown Community Development Corp.

He served on the boards of the Germantown Community Council, Greater Germantown Alliance, Northwest Interfaith Movement, Nidhamu Sasa (African Free School), Metropolitan Collegiate Center of Germantown, and the Black Humanist Fellowship, the former Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus.

He also became a self-described urban environmentalist, working for the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) and the National Temple Recycling Center.

The ECA weatherizes homes, fixes or replaces broken heaters, and provides energy counseling and bill-paying aid to needy families. Mr. Tolbert was the manager of the agency’s weatherization program. Some of his techniques for securing roofs were used in programs across the nation.

In 1985, Mr. Tolbert became the director of economic development for the Temple recycling center in North Philadelphia. He told the Daily News that it was crushing and reselling recyclables to raise money for rehabilitation of dilapidated housing, and to build a supermarket and mini-mall.

At that time, recycling was emerging as a way of addressing the problem of too much trash going into landfills. “Everybody is going to have to change their attitudes and practices concerning trash,” Mr. Tolbert was quoted as saying.

When not working, Mr. Tolbert enjoyed reading military history, a hobby he had developed while living in Osaka, Japan. He was intent on understanding how the U.S. had treated people of color in the armed forces.

He remained friends with his three wives. He was married first to Clara Tolbert. They divorced; she survives. His second wife was Ahada Stanford. They had a son before divorcing. She survives. Sonja Tolbert is his third wife and partner in raising two children. Brenda Maisha Jackson is the mother of his oldest child, Mpozi Tolbert, who died in 2000 at age 33.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughter Ayanna Tolbert; sons Dedan and Sadiki Tolbert; and three grandchildren.

Plans for a life celebration were pending.

Memorial donations may be made to the Black Humanist Fellowship, c/o Univest Bank & Trust Co., 7226 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19119.