Early in her leadership of the Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corp., Mildred Hailey articulated ambitions large and small — changes that could be quickly accomplished and aspirations that spoke to the souls of the public housing development’s residents.
“Safe, sanitary, and decent housing, that’s our main goal,” she told the Globe in 1979, adding: “We want to put in trees and shrubbery to soften the harshness, and we could use benches, barbecue pits, new fences.”
That was just for starters.
“We want people to develop pride in Bromley-Heath,” Mrs. Hailey said. “We want to be viewed by the rest of Jamaica Plain as first-class citizens. It’s a continual struggle.”
When Mrs. Hailey died Wednesday at 82 of heart failure, not long after being diagnosed with cancer, she had spent most of her life struggling to improve the place that was her home for six decades, even after she retired in 2012.
A child of Mississippi who moved to Boston and became executive director of the nation’s first tenant-run public housing development, Mrs. Hailey was a national figure, a confidante of US secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, a leader whose counsel was sought internationally.
“There were people who believed she could do anything,” said Doris Bunte, a longtime friend and former administrator of the Boston Housing Authority. “She was bold in her thinking. She was smart. She was brave. And she enjoyed helping people. Mildred was a strong woman. They don’t make them like that anymore.”
Mrs. Hailey, Bunte added, was “the mother of Bromley-Heath. And of course, she’s the mother of resident management, which is a more national distinction. Together that’s pretty significant.”
As a leader, Mrs. Hailey drew praise locally and nationally. Jack Kemp, then secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, called her “an authentic leader and example to be admired” in May 1991, when the department presented her with its Resident of the Year award in a Washington, D.C., ceremony.
“Mildred Hailey changed the way people thought about public housing in Boston and across the country,” Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said in a statement after she died. “She pioneered the concept that the Bromley-Heath Housing Development and others weren’t just places to live but were fully formed communities where residents deserved a sense of ownership and agency in how those communities were run. That philosophy brought about an immeasurable improvement in quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people through the years.”
The silver-haired matriarch of Bromley-Heath could be soft-spoken yet stern, forgiving yet resolute. She was also the matriarch of an extended family: eight children, 26 grandchildren, 57 great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren.
The “we are family” thread that wove through hundreds of Bromley-Heath units was personal and professional, in good times and bad. That included a few years, beginning in the late 1990s, when federal investigations resulted in numerous drug-related arrests that included members of her family. In the wake of the initial arrests, the Boston Housing Authority took over control of Bromley-Heath in October 1998, and then returned operations to the Tenant Management Corp. and Mrs. Hailey a year later.
Born in Jackson, Miss., Mildred Younger was the oldest of four children. She was a girl when her parents, Rufus H. Younger Sr. and the former Mary Mildred Shaffer, moved the family to Boston. They lived in Roxbury before relocating “into what was considered to be a stepping stone in public housing,” recalled her brother James M. Younger of Thomaston, Ala. The Youngers were among the first African-American families on the Heath Street side when they became residents in the mid-1950s.
“I remember when we had to fight our way out of the projects to go across the street to the store and fight our way back in,” Younger said. Against that backdrop, he added, his parents instilled values in the children.
‘There were people who believed she could do anything.’Doris Bunte, former Boston Housing Authority administrator
“Our parents were loving and caring,” he said. “Needless to say we were poor, but I don’t think any of us felt poor. I believe we lived in an atmosphere where we believed we could do anything in life.” That was particularly true of Mildred, Younger added: “From when I can first remember she was always a leader and always took charge.”
In 1951, she married Raleigh R. Hailey, with whom she had five sons, James of Baltimore, Dennis who died in 2003, Willie and Ricky of Jamaica Plain, and Stevie of Boston; and three daughters, the Rev. Pamela Gillard of Hyde Park, and Patricia DeGrace and Paula Martin of Brockton. David Worrell of Dorchester also grew up in the home and Mrs. Hailey considered him one of her children. Mr. Hailey died in 2001.
During the 1960s, Mrs. Hailey and others at Bromley-Heath advocated for tenants to run the development, and they incorporated the Tenant Management Corp. in the early 1970s. At the time, the complex had thousands of broken windows and basic utilities were an iffy proposition in many units.
Mrs. Hailey led activists as they turned a baby-sitting program into day-care, a clinic into a full-fledged health center, and made sure basic details were addressed, such as ensuring that trash was hauled away. “We all did this for one reason, and that is to improve the quality of life,” she told the Globe in 1998.
Still, she never lost sight of Bromley-Heath as a large family. If the Tenant Management Corp. has “a weakness it’s caring for people,” she told the Globe in 1981. “If somebody is behind in their rent, we give them so many chances . . . while somewhere else, they’d get an eviction notice.”
At various points during her leadership, she drew criticism for her compassion — steering residents who had gone astray toward drug treatment, rather than into the courts, for example.
“She never was judgmental about anybody,” her brother said. “If you had any misfortune in your life, she always treated you like you were somebody, and she always gave you hope and inspiration. Her unconditional love set her apart from everybody.”
Mrs. Hailey “was a savior to Bromley-Heath, but she was my savior as well,” said her daughter Pamela, who is associate minister at Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, where a funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Nov. 25. “I am truly the woman of God that I am” because of her, she added.
In addition to her children, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, and brother, Mrs. Hailey leaves another brother, Sonny Younger of Hyde Park.
“Her entire life she just worked to help other people,” said Mrs. Hailey’s daughter Patricia. “She was this amazing example for us. We felt that if we could be half the woman she was, we would be really special.”
Bill McGonagle, administrator of the Boston Housing Authority, said that one of Mrs. Hailey’s “finest qualities is that she understood right to the fiber of her being that our public housing communities are not a drab collection of bricks, mortar, asphalt, and concrete. They were living, breathing communities that housed families. They were homes to thousands and thousands of people, to generations of Bostonians.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.