Matriarch recalls years of toiling for a better city

July 27, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Rita McCurley retired a few weeks ago after nearly two decades of breaking up street fights and listening to people's troubles and joys as an official of COIL (Communities Organized to Improve Life) in Southwest Baltimore.

Now, she can sit back on her big sofa and talk about the neighbor hood without being interrupted by phone calls from neighbors with problems.

In her 19 years at COIL, which has its headquarters near the Hollins Market, she tried to bring out the best in the boisterous streets due west of downtown Baltimore.

"There was so much that needed to be done. You could go out in the morning and pick your cause. Everybody was activist and we weren't organized then. We were like voices crying in the wilderness," McCurley said of the old days on South Fulton Avenue when she and some neighbors opened a makeshift survival center.

"Nixon was in the White House. We were against everything," she says, smiling broadly.

Even though Rita McCurley has seen city life in the raw, much of what she has to say is upbeat. If things get her down, she won't talk about it.

She is one of Baltimore's irrepressible neighborhood matriarchs, a lady who knows plenty and also knows when to keep her mouth shut. In her day, she also knew how to open it.

"It was the 1970s, and people were believing they could effect change. There wasn't the competition for money," she recalled.

Her first attempt at solving a neighborhood's problems was motivated by motherly instinct, an effort to keep her own brood in line.

"The children, maybe I should say adolescents, of both races began fighting and fussing at Monroe and Wilkens. Pretty soon, their families were fighting and then, reluctantly, their neighbors were fighting," McCurley said.

"My children were never quick to turn the other cheek. Some of the rascals the neighbors were talking about were mine," she recalled.

As the mother of 10 children (eight sons: Earl Brendan, Kevin Daniel, Patrick, Brian, Terrance, Sean, Michael and Timothy; and two daughters, Kathleen and Mary Ei leen), she had her hands full.

"I thought I could stand between those children and the world and protect them," she said.

McCurley looks back on the 1970s as a period of neighborhood solidarity and cooperation. Pigtown, Union Square, Hollins Hill, Franklin Square, Shipley Hill, Mill Hill and a dozen more block clubs and associations hashed out emotional issues under COIL's banner.

When she retired at the end of June, her title was director of neighborhood develop ment.

She was a big proponent of adult education and literacy.

"When we came together as a group, we learned our problems were similar," she said.

She was inspired by the leadership and selfless spirit that emerged from the little houses and streets of this part of Baltimore.

"People were working not within the limitations of intelligence and courage, but within the limitations of their own situations in life," she said.

McCurley recalled a particularly harsh winter when her group sent out a plea for blankets.

"A woman who could ill-afford it walked in and donated an electric heater. That was the kind of kindness I've seen," she said.

Rita McCurley was born in Irvington on Kossuth Street and attended St. Benedict's parochial school. Today, she lives in a Christian Street rowhouse, about a block from St. Benedict Church's tall orange brick tower.

Both her parents were Irish. Her mother was from Limerick. Her father was born in Glasgow, Scotland, where some of his countrymen had gone to find work.

"My father, Dan Murphy, was a union man, a stonemason. He pushed for a 40-hour week. That didn't always make him popular here," she said.

Her father may have given her a taste for activism. From both parents, she got a love of life and a willingness to try to solve any problem that came to her desk or doorstep.

"The 1970s seem so innocent today. The streets [today] frighten me," McCurley said.

"You have to have sympathy for the drug users because they are sick. I would hate to feel that I didn't have sympathy for people who have enslaved themselves," she said.

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