On a sun-flooded morning, hundreds of families from Bromley Heath apartments sat in overflow chairs in a crowded tent to listen as Mayor Marty Walsh and Boston Housing Authority William McGonagle renamed the development Mildred C. Hailey Apartments.
Joining them was Anna Mae Cole, a friend and comrade in arms for over 60 years and former chair of the Bromley Heath Tenant Management Corporation that Mrs. Hailey (and yes she was always Mrs. Hailey) directed for 40 years.
Mrs. Hailey died of cancer at the age of 82 on Nov. 18, 2015 . Walsh remembered her memorial service: “At the end Billy [McGonagle] came up to me and said, “I’ve never asked you for anything but I’d like to ask you to name Bromley Heath after Mildred Hailey.”
And so it happened at high noon Wednesday to honor a woman whom McGonagle called “a force of nature who tackled an extraordinarily difficult job.”
Miniard Culpepper, HUD regional counsel, and a family friend said, “What Maya Angelou is to poetry and Aretha Franklin is to soul music, Mildred Hailey is to the people of Bromley Heath.”
Culpepper, who is also pastor of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, got an amen to that.
Mrs. Hailey told a journalist in 1998 that “respect you earn; power you take.” And Mrs. Hailey knew how to use power.
“She wasn’t afraid to tick off a mayor or two or three,” Walsh said.
That was because she knew how power worked and she understood how government worked despite its built-in restraints. She was never afraid to go over anyone’s head but she always let officials know what she was going to do. And she offered solutions.
Her daughter, Rev. Pamela Gillard, recalled, “She’d see some things wrong and she’d say ‘we’re going to let Bill [McGonagle] buy us lunch and then we’ll tell him what to do.'”
Maybe the first idea wasn’t feasible but the second one would be and then she’d wait for the right time to work on the other one.
Mildred Hailey Apartments was built in two phases; Heath Street, 1941 and Bromley Park, 1954; it covers 23 acres and is a village of 1,152 homes beneath Parker Hill.
Born Mildred Younger in Jackson, Mississippi in 1933, her family moved to Boston where her father worked in the Charlestown Naval Shipyard during World War II. Married in 1951, hers was one of the first families to move into the second half of Bromley Heath development when it opened in 1955. Hers was also one of the first black families to move into Heath Street at a time when black people moving into Jamaica Plain were not well received.
To confront those and other problems, Mrs. Hailey and her close friend Anna Mae Cole — who also moved to Bromley Park in 1955 — became active in the early 1960s in the new tenants task force. It was a difficult time in public housing as the tenant population became increasingly poor and unable to cope with an indifferent management, the quality of life bad, crime rising and the Boston Housing Authority overwhelmed.
The concept of tenant-run public housing began as a demonstration program from the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1968. The Bromley Heath Tenant task force submitted a proposal that was accepted and an interim management committee set up, of which Mrs. Hailey was a member
The interim committee operated until Feb. 21, 1972, when BHA Administrator Ellis Ash signed a contact with the Tenant Management Corporation that granted complete management responsibility with an operating budget.
The TMC organized a resident-based Bromley Heath Security Patrol in 1975 to address crime and vandalism — some of it coming from outside the development.
When the huge Plant Shoe factory on Bickford Street burned in an enormous fire on Feb. 2, 1976, the Security Patrol rescued dozens of elderly from 80 Bickford St. across from the main factory building. It was a shock to Mildred Hailey and the TMC. The buildings were coated with thick sheets of ice for days.
Twenty years later, on Sept. 21 1996, the Super Stop and Shop and a new Martha Eliot Health Center (created by Mrs. Hailey and the tenant task force in 1966 ) opened on that very site. It was jointly developed by the TMC, The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. and Mordechai Levin.
Lewis H. “Harry” Spence was there, one of three former BHA administrators that worked with the TMC; Joseph Feaster and David Cortiella were the other two.
In February 1980, Boston Housing Court Judge Paul G. Garrity appointed Spence the court receiver of the Boston Housing Authority.
On Feb. 5, 1975, 10 BHA residents sued the BHA in Housing Court, contesting the deplorable living conditions and crime in Boston’s public housing developments. After repeated attempts by the court to receive a satisfactory plan of action, Garrity determined in 1979 that the BHA – legislated in 1935 and the fourth-largest public housing authority in the nation – “was unable to carry out its functions as a housing authority … and had abandoned its low-income tenants.”
Mrs. Hailey’s new contract — signed in 1979 — was administered by Spence, who was required to make monthly progress reports to the housing court.
Receivership ended in October 1984 and Mayor Ray Flynn appointed Doris Bunte — a Roxbury state representative since 1973 and who had lived at Orchard Gardens — as the first post-receivership BHA administrator.
At Wednesday’s dedication, Bunte spoke of Mrs. Hailey as a partner, one who looked out for opportunities to improve the lives of those who lived at Bromley Heath.
One of these was her active participation for years in the Southwest Corridor Park planning and design to get new playgrounds for all ages and shady sitting areas adjacent to the development around the new Jackson Square station.
“Power you take,” said Mrs. Hailey, and she took it when there was power vacuum at the BHA for over a decade. But times had changed from the sordid ’70s and Mrs. Hailey retired amid controversy in February 2012; the BHA assumed its management responsibilities and the TMC reverted to a tenant task force as it was at the beginning.
Anna Mae Cole called Mrs. Hailey “the sister I never had” and remembered her days “fighting for our community.” Cole – now 84 and still bristling with energy – spoke out to the youth, “and now its time for you young people to step up the the plate. Take charge! Work to make things better!”
One of those younger people is Yamilet Torres, president of the Mildred Hailey Apartments Task Force, who spoke about her commitment to her community. To emphasize the changing demographics of JP, she gave her remarks in English and Spanish.
Mildred Hailey had her critics — every successful community leader does — but for 40 years she gave a face for a faceless community and as a result Mildred Hailey Apartments is today an integral part of Jamaica Plain. Not a mean feat.