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Malcolm X house may get makeover

Plan calls for Malcolm X site to house graduate students

Photos by Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Rodnell Collins, nephew of Malcolm X, outside the family home on Dale Street in Roxbury.

The now-rundown Roxbury house where Malcolm X lived in the 1940s would get a makeover and be turned into housing for graduate students in African-American studies or related fields, under a new agreement signed by a Boston preservation organization and a nephew of the slain black leader.

“This would be great for the family and for Malcolm’s legacy,’’ said Rodnell Collins, 67, whose late mother, Ella Little Collins, owned the house on Dale Street and was Malcolm X’s half-sister. “Malcolm believed in education.’’

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Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit group that seeks modern uses for historic properties, will try to enlist area universities to fund needed renovations, estimated to cost between $500,000 and $750,000.

“We need to find a real estate solution,’’ said Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston. “This will not be a museum. We want to honor the role Malcolm X played in American society and the role this house played in his life.’’

Before converting to Islam and changing his name to Malcolm X, young Malcolm Little spent about 10 years in Boston. During much of that time, he lived in the home of Ella Collins, a Roxbury businesswoman, civil rights activist, and matriarch of a large extended family.

This week, contractors hired by Historic Boston completed emergency repairs to the building, which has been unoccupied or used only sporadically by family members since the 1960s. Collins died in 1996.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X refers to Ella Collins as “the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life.’’ He credited her with helping to rescue him from a troubled youth, during which he moved often and lived in foster homes.

As a teenager in Boston, Malcolm X fell into a life of petty crime and served time for burglary. While in prison, he converted to Islam and upon his release joined the Nation of Islam - led by Elijah Muhammad, a staunch proponent of black empowerment - soon emerging as one of the group’s leaders.

A controversial national figure, Malcolm X advocated black empowerment and shunned accommodation under the white establishment. Later, he split with the Nation of Islam. He was assassinated in 1965 by men with ties to rivals in the religious organization.

Since his death, Malcolm X has become a cultural icon and symbol of black pride. He has been credited with fostering the spread of Islam in the African-American community and helping to connect American blacks to their African heritage.

Malcolm X’s life has been chronicled in books, television shows, and movies, including the 1992 Spike Lee film “Malcolm X,’’ starring Denzel Washington. His posthumous “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’’ written with “Roots’’ author Alex Haley, has become required reading in some college courses.

Kottaridis said she has had initial talks with several Boston-area universities about joining the effort to renovate the house. She said it could be used by graduate students or visiting faculty.

“Our hope is that a university could see the benefit of an association with a building like this,’’ Kottaridis said. “It’s a diamond in the rough that is relatively unknown in the Boston area.’’

A small plaque on the front lawn notes the house’s connection to Malcolm X. In 1998, the city of Boston designated the house an official landmark. That means any substantial changes need the Boston Landmarks Commission’s approval.

In recent months, the city’s Inspectional Services Department has pressed for repairs to the building because of the deteriorating conditions, which included leaks in the roof. Over the past two weeks, a contractor hired by Historic Boston covered the entire roof with a rubber membrane and secured access to the building. Kottaridis said the work should buy time to plan the full project and raise the needed funds.

Historic Boston recently received a $5,000 planning grant for the project from the 1772 Foundation, a Connecticut nonprofit.

“The most inspiring thing about this is the commitment of the Collins family in preserving this home,’’ said District Seven City Councilor Tito Jackson.

In 1941, when Ella Collins bought the property, members of her extended family also moved into the house, which was divided into three units. Rodnell Collins has fond memories of his teenage Uncle Malcolm, whose room was on the top floor.

“For a long time, I thought he was my brother. It wasn’t until I was 6 that I realized he was my uncle,’’ he said.

After his burglary conviction 1946, Malcolm X was sent to state prison in Charlestown. His half-sister requested that he be transferred to the Norfolk facility because it had a library. “We used to visit him in prison in Norfolk, and I remember sitting on his lap,’’ Rodnell Collins said.

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.
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