Ken Guscott was a successful Roxbury developer at a time when many people in Boston didn’t know there was such a thing.
But the sadness so many felt as the news of his death spread Monday was only partly about material accomplishment. He was also a major force for equality and racial justice, a man who never wavered in his commitment to opening doors that had long been closed to black Bostonians.
When he launched a major downtown project— the skyscraper at One Lincoln Street — he made it a point to recruit African-American investors.
“Part of his dream was to do downtown development,” his daughter, Lisa, said Tuesday. “To show young black boys that black men could do something, that they could be a force in this world.”
Guscott, who was 91, died in a house fire in Milton Monday morning. His father-in-law, Leroy Whitmore, 87, also perished in the fire. His wife and son miraculously made it out alive.
When people think of Guscott, they think of more than one person. His brothers George and Cecil were business partners, and the three were inseparable. George died a few years ago, but Cecil, 93, is one of two older siblings that survive him.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Guscott was a product of vibrant, pre-World War II Roxbury. One of his buddies growing up was Gene Wolcott, who would later become famous as Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.
Guscott was a nuclear engineer by training. In the 1960s, he served as president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. He and his brothers went into real estate in the late 1960s. At that time, Roxbury was rapidly becoming less populous and poorer. The Guscotts were alarmed by the lack of jobs and economic opportunity in the neighborhood. So they founded Long Bay Management Co., which daughter Lisa now runs.
“At the time our young black men were standing on the corner,” she said. “They didn’t have any access to jobs, but there were all these trucks rolling in from New Hampshire and Maine.”
To say Ken Guscott was a strong personality would be an understatement. The person he turned to for counsel throughout his life — some would say the only person he really listened to — was his older brother Cecil.
“In that culture, when your older brother spoke you had nothing to say,” Lisa Guscott said. “You just shut up and listened.”
One of Ken Guscott’s driving passions was the redevelopment of Dudley Square. He wanted to see its glory restored and often waxed eloquent about the community center it had once been. It’s fair to say he also thought it had been abandoned by the city’s power structure after white people left the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. He wanted to see the rebirth of black Boston’s downtown.
To some extent, he did. But the last great project of his life was in the heart of Dudley Square. There he envisioned a 25-story retail and residential development. His daughter vows that the project will get done, in Guscott’s memory. There couldn’t be a more fitting memorial.
Even as they reached advanced age, the Guscott brothers never lost their visibility. To the end, Ken and Cecil would hold court on Thursday nights at Darryl’s Bar and Kitchen in Lower Roxbury, dispensing business advice, listening to music, or reminiscing about the neighborhood they had always called home.
Ken Guscott leaves a large and loving family, a couple of generations of proteges, and a legion of admirers. But I think part of his legacy is that he relentlessly pushed Boston to become a better, fairer, more inclusive city. When doors were closed, he kicked them open.
“There was a proverb that I think embodied my father’s life,” Lisa Guscott said. “Care more than others think is wise. Risk more than others think is safe. Dream more than others think is practical. And expect more than others think is possible.”