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Malcolm X’s former home gets a closer look

Rodnell Collins, a nephew of Malcolm X (pictured in the portrait), aims to raise money to renovate the home the civil rights activist lived in. He hopes it will become a historical destination. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In his autobiography, famed civil rights activist Malcolm X fondly recalls his teenage years in Roxbury, where he in the 1940s lived at the Dale Street home of his half-sister, Ella Little-Collins.

She was the first “really proud black woman” he had ever met, just as the lively streets of Humboldt Avenue Hill showcased the wealthiest black people he’d ever seen, he wrote.

On Tuesday, the city will begin a two-week archeological dig at the property, in hopes of finding artifacts before the Collins family embarks on plans to restore the historic home, which has fallen into disrepair.

“This is the one chance we’ll have to dig the site,” said city archeologist Joseph Bagley.

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Bagley said the home, which has remained in the family and is now owned by Malcolm X’s nephew, Rodnell Collins, is largely unchanged since the 1940s. And since Collins, 71, lived in the home as a boy, he can serve as a guide on where it would be best to look.

“It’s going to look like we’re going through garbage, but archeology is often the study of garbage,” Bagley quipped. “It could be their leftover food or their dinner, it might be something that family pets left behind. We’re not sure.”

Bagley approached Collins about the dig about a year ago, after learning of his plans to repair the house. The excavation could also uncover far older artifacts, back to when the piece of land was an Irish farm in the early 17th and 18th centuries, Bagley said.

The dig will begin with a weeklong scan of the property and will break ground next Tuesday.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whose office billed the project as a “community dig,” said it was an “exciting opportunity for residents to unearth an important piece of Boston’s history.”

The home was named a historic city landmark in the late 1990s, but it has seen far better days, evidenced by its rickety front stairs leading to a chipped-paint porch.

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Collins, the son of Little-Collins, said he wants to raise money to renovate the two-story home, which he hopes could become a historical destination that would highlight Malcolm X’s often overlooked time in Boston.

“This is just a building, and this building could be gone tomorrow,” Collins said. “But this building also represents the idea. It’s about Uncle Malcolm and his family.”

Renovation plans presented an opportunity for an archeological dig at the house where Malcolm X lived in Roxbury. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

As if to prove the point, several people stopped by the home Monday to take pictures of the house and pay homage to the slain black leader. Robert Banks, who grew up in Roxbury but now lives in Maryland, snapped pictures of the home’s historic designation, then of Collins, whom he was thrilled to meet. Banks said he admired Malcolm X’s commitment to “speak his mind and assert himself” even in the face of grave danger.

“It doesn’t get the notoriety I think it deserves,” Banks, 44, said of the home. Malcolm X “did some unsavory things in Boston, but his sister and the city played a big role in his development.”

Born Malcolm Little in 1925, Malcolm X came to Boston from the Midwest after his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. His father, a Baptist preacher, had been killed in 1931.

In his autobiography, he describes the initial shock of moving to Roxbury, a neighborhood where black people lived and acted “differently from any black people I’d ever dreamed of in my life.”

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He was immediately enthralled with the cultural differences between the Midwest and East Coast, and studied the mannerisms of Bostonians at busy sites like North Station, South Station, and Harvard University.

He lived in a small, upstairs room, and worked as a hotel busboy and jazz club shoe-shiner.

“Soon I ranged out of Roxbury and began to explore Boston proper,” he wrote in his autobiography. “One statue in the Boston Commons astonished me: a Negro named Crispus Attucks, who had been the first man to fall in the Boston Massacre. I had never known anything like that.”

In 1946, Malcolm X, then 20, was sentenced to eight to 10 years in the notorious Charlestown State Prison for larceny and burglary after he and three others tried to rob several homes in the area.

In prison, he converted to Islam and joined the Nation of Islam, a black separatist movement that had started only two decades earlier.

He changed his name to Malcolm X to reflect his “stolen” ancestry.

After his release in 1952, he spent time in Duxbury, where he gave his first speech regarding disenfranchisement to a small group of local cranberry pickers, Collins said.

“All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Collins has written a family memoir on his uncle, whom he actually thought was his brother for several years.

Collins, who saw Malcolm X transition from an ordinary criminal to a world-famous leader, recalled his uncle’s final days.

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On a late February evening in 1965, Collins, his mother, and Malcolm X sat in a car in New York. Malcolm X was worried about the family’s safety, Collins recalled, and he wanted his sister to make financial preparations in case tragedy struck.

The next day — Feb. 21, 1965 — he was assassinated.

Collins said his mother never returned to the Dale Street home.

Map: Site of city dig


Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.