Thursday, January 19, 2012

Malcolm’s Sister

Ella and Malcolm at 72 Dale Street, 1941
In his Autobiography, this is how Malcolm X referred to his half-sister, Ella Little Collins:

I think the major impact of Ella’s arrival [in Lansing], at least upon me, was that she was the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life.  She was plainly proud of her very dark skin.  This was unheard of among Negroes in those days, especially in Lansing.
If Martin Luther King Day honors equality and civil rights, we are sharing a story from Rodnell Collin’s 1997 book, Seventh Child, about his mother’s struggle to purchase the future Boston Landmark at 72 Dale Street.  It is a reminder of an imperfect time in Boston and Roxbury, but it teaches us that our preservation work today must also interpret some challenging back stories.



Ella Little Collins in 1967
Ma’s [Ella Little Collins] resourcefulness and determination were also exhibited when she outsmarted a bigoted white family who didn’t want to sell her the property at 72 Dale Street.  She didn’t run to a civil-rights organization seeking help.  “I always kept an ace in the hole for such people,” she said.  She checked at the bank and found that all the family wanted for the property was five hundred dollars cash and payment of overdue real estate taxes.  After checking with Mr. Gordon, a Jewish realtor who had schooled her in the process of purchasing property threatened with bank foreclosure, and Mr. Charlie Roundtree, a black realtor whom she trusted, Ma once again approached the family and offered them six hundred dollars cash and payment of the overdue taxes.  They wouldn’t even show her the house.


Then Ma made her move.  By now the owners had raised the price to nine hundred dollars.  What they didn’t know was that Ma was prepared to pay twelve hundred dollars, a fact that she made known to the bank.  The bank, interested only in getting their money, pressured the bigoted family to sell to her.  They still balked; almost a year went by.  Finally, a persistent Ma approached them again with an agreement paper and nine hundred dollars in hand.  Now they wanted twelve hundred dollars.  “I didn’t blink,” Ma said. “I told them that if they signed the agreement paper immediately for twelve hundred dollars, I would leave a nine hundred dollar deposit and pay the balance in twenty-four hours.  If I didn’t, they could keep the nine hundred dollar deposit.  If I didn’t, they could keep the nine hundred dollar deposit.  That offer convinced them they were dealing with a dumb Negro, so they quickly signed the agreement.”    She then called the bank and told them that she had both a signed agreement and the twelve hundred dollars in hand.  The bank, now drooling with eagerness to close the deal, called the family and told them they wanted their money that day.  The property owners were shocked to find Ma sitting there when they came to the bank.  “They were sure that they were going to have both my nine hundred dollars and the house,” Ma said.  The bank insisted that they stick to the signed agreement and sell for the twelve hundred dollars agreed upon.  By the time they paid the five hundred dollar mortgage to the bank and six hundred dollars’ worth of overdue real-estate taxes, they had exactly one hundred dollars in cash.”  That’s what they got for messing with Ma. 


From the Chapter entitled “Ella,” Seventh Child by Rodnell P.Collins with A. Peter Bailey, Birch Lane Books, 1998.

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