MILTON — Just two weeks ago, Kenneth Guscott and his family were recognized at an event honoring Boston’s storied black families. In his address to the crowd, the prominent developer spoke glowingly about his vision for Dudley Square and his final project: a $200 million, 25-story tower that he hoped would become the tallest building in Roxbury.
“This is the last one before I retire,” he promised neighbors and friends after coming out of retirement for a third time. Guscott, 91, couldn’t stay away from the neighborhood he so dearly loved and whose rebirth he was eager to witness.
But just after midnight Monday, Guscott died in a fire at his home on Elias Lane, fire officials said. His father-in-law, Leroy Whitmore, 87, also perished in the blaze.
Firefighters who arrived to the scene saw no smoke and no signs of a fire, said Milton Fire Chief Jack Grant. But Guscott’s wife, Valerie, and their teenage son, Kenneth Jr., told firefighters that the two men were trapped inside.
The firefighters made their way into the house without a hose in an attempt to rescue the men but were driven back by heavy heat and smoke,” said Grant.
Smoke filled the second floor, where the fire had begun in one of the bedrooms. The men’s bodies were found in separate rooms.
One man was pulled from the house alive but unconscious, said Grant, who did not know which one. The other was found some time later, he said.
Investigators are working to determine the cause of the fire, which was accidental, said Grant. The home was equipped with working smoke detectors, he said.
Twenty people have died in Massachusetts fires so far this year, compared with 22 by the end of March last year, said Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal.
Standing outside his house next door Monday morning, neighbor Faisal Khan, 45, said Guscott’s wife was in shock.
“She said, ‘I can’t believe they’re gone. They were my boys. Kenneth was the love of my life,’ ” Khan said.
“You just don’t think this will happen to someone you know,” he said.
Khan said Kenneth Guscott had diabetes and had an ulcer in his foot. Friends say he had recently been using a wheelchair.
Whitmore had dementia and Valerie Guscott cared for him, said Khan. Relatives said Whitmore was a retired chef.
Guscott’s death stunned the city, leaving elected officials, business leaders, and his family heartbroken.
“We’re trying to process what happened, how it happened,” said Guscott’s daughter Lisa. She said the family was preparing to meet with clergy and a funeral director.
Guscott, the son of Jamaican immigrants, was exposed to community activism at an early age. His mother, the late Rubina Guscott, was frequently at the front lines of civil rights protests.
When Guscott returned home to Roxbury after serving in the Army Air Force during World War II, he noticed his once-thriving neighborhood had begun to change, and he began to play a larger role in his community. By the early 1960s, he was president of the Boston NAACP and was a staunch advocate for civil rights.
Under his leadership, the organization drafted legislation, later approved by lawmakers, to regulate agencies that brought young black women from the South to work as maids, but at a pay far lower than they had been promised.
He also challenged de facto school segregation in federal court and later led a voter registration drive that resulted in the election of Boston’s first black city councilor.
Guscott also made headlines in 1964 for being the first black man since Reconstruction to register at a white Mississippi hotel as a test of the new civil rights law.
He later participated in an initiative led by then-mayor Kevin White to determine the cause of unrest in Boston. People wanted jobs and affordable housing, but HUD-funded projects that were supposed to boost the city ended up going to workers outside of Roxbury.
Fueled by their frustration over that and a commitment to their community, Guscott and his brothers formed Long Bay Management Co. in 1969. They began purchasing residential and commercial properties, including OneUnited Bank site — the former Boston Five Cents Savings Bank — in Roxbury, and quickly became a leading force in the real estate market.
Guscott would go on to spearhead the revival of Dudley Square.
In 1988, he recounted that he had been denied an apartment on Elm Hill Avenue 30 years prior because he was black, and he remarked that now “I own the whole damn block.”
“He was the leader of a family of Roxbury royalty,” said Richard L. Taylor, director of the Center for Real Estate at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School and a longtime friend. “He invested in Roxbury at a time when there was massive disinvestment.”
“Ken was a person who believed that every ethnic group had talent and the capability, and that Roxbury was going to rise by those who stood up for it, and that’s what he did,” said Taylor.
Taylor said Guscott, a nuclear engineer, was former president of Action for Boston Community Development and served on many boards.
“Ken served Boston and its people in so many ways — as a veteran, an advocate, and a lifelong builder of a better city,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “His vision for Dudley Square and the transformation of Roxbury was bright and vibrant, and he pushed every day to create jobs, support business development, and bring greater opportunity to the neighborhood.”
Guscott was an avid supporter of minority business and wanted to see the generation after him succeed.
M. David Lee of Stull and Lee Inc., an architectural firm, said Guscott made sure that each firm he worked with had a person of color, and that that person was able to play a prominent role.
Malcolm “MJ” Harris said his grandfather proved that anything was within reach and encouraged him to become an entrepreneur.
“Being able to see his path provided me with the insight that more was possible,” said Harris, owner of National Care Financial Group. “My grandfather is the true reflection of the American dream.”
Guscott leaves his wife, son, and four daughters, said Harris.
Dapper in a dark blazer and his signature hat, Guscott appeared frail in his wheelchair, but his mind was sharp when he took the microphone at the event two weeks ago honoring his family and others.
“His voice was a little weak, but it was clear,” said Candelaria Silva, who is active in the community and attended the event. “He still, to me, had the same fiery spirit.”
Globe correspondent Amanda Hoover contributed to this report. Jan Ransom can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.