January 21, 2013

A Sister's Love: The Story Behind the Malcolm X – Ella Little-Collins House

Built in 1874, this is the last known surviving boyhood home of Malcolm X.  Credit: Steve Dunwell

Built in 1874, this is the last known surviving boyhood home of Malcolm X.

Two of the things I like most about my work with the National Trust are the people I meet and the stories I hear. My work on the Malcolm X House has provided me an opportunity to hear stories not only about Malcolm X as a boy and young man, but also of his older half sister Ella Little-Collins, as told by Rodnell Collins, Ella’s son and Malcolm X’s nephew.

I knew a bit about Malcolm X going into the project -- his role as a social justice and civil rights leader, his leadership in the Nation of Islam -- but nothing about Ella. By talking with Rodnell, I have learned about Malcolm’s life and his important relationship with his half sister, who is credited with playing an influential and supportive role throughout his life.

In his book, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, Bruce Perry relates a story about Malcolm X’s time while in a juvenile home in Michigan. He was achieving good grades in school and was president of his 8th grade class. He aspired to become a lawyer. When he told his teacher of his ambition, he was not prepared for the stinging, negative response he received, a response that Malcolm later described as a major turning point in his life.

During this time, Malcolm occasionally visited Ella in Roxbury, MA, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Boston. Eventually, Ella gained guardianship of Malcolm, and he moved to Boston in 1941. Six months later she purchased the house we now refer to as the Malcolm X - Ella Little-Collins House at 72 Dale Street. This house became a touchstone for Malcolm through his rebellious and intellectually-defining years.

The historic home has been largely vacant for over 30 years. Credit: Steve Dunwell
The historic home has been largely vacant for over 30 years.

The house itself was built in 1874 and was modified significantly during Ella’s lifetime. Family was always a priority for Ella, and she often had various relatives living in different parts of the house. She divided rooms, added bathrooms, and did what she could to accommodate those who needed a home.

Ella kept the 72 Dale Street house until her death in 1996, when ownership was transferred to Rodnell. According to him, his mother never returned to the house after Malcolm X was shot in 1965, and the building was left vacant for nearly 30 years after her relatives left the property in the early 1980s.

Rodnell Collins grew up with his uncle Malcolm coming in and out of his life. From our conversations, we’ve learned that family and education continue to be key values for the Little-Collins family. Rodnell and his family wish to honor Ella Little-Collins’ and Malcolm X’s legacies by restoring the house, possibly as living quarters for graduate students studying civil rights, social justice, or African-American history.

Historic Boston, Inc. (HBI), a highly respected nonprofit preservation and real estate organization that rehabilitates historic and culturally significant properties in Boston, is working with the Collins family to help make this a reality. The National Trust is partnering with HBI to tell the story of the Malcolm X - Ella Little-Collins house. Through the 2012 11 Most Endangered Historic Places listing and other outlets, we will seek national recognition for it and provide support for its rehabilitation and reuse.

It's estimated it will cost over $1 million to make this project a success. In the end, we hope to revitalize this important structure in honor of its past, and as a way to contribute to the vitality of its surrounding neighborhood.

To learn more about the Trust’s work to rehabilitate the Malcolm X house, or to contribute to this project, please visit SavingPlaces.org.

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