Rita V. McCurley

Age 80 The activist helped start a group to improve lives and advocate for residents of Southwest Baltimore.

"As an advocate for the poor and those who couldn't read, she fought behind the scenes," the Rev. Paschal Morlino said.

August 02, 2008|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Reporter

Rita Virginia McCurley, a Southwest Baltimore community activist and family matriarch, died of Alzheimer's disease Wednesday at St. Elizabeth's Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. She was 80.

Born Rita Murphy on Kossuth Street in Irvington, she attended St. Benedict's Parochial School. Family members said she took her brother's birth certificate, changed the name from Joseph to Josephine and got a job at a paint brush factory to help support her family. She was later fired when she addressed a black co-worker as "Sir."

She later earned a General Educational Development certificate and attended the old Bay College.

In a 1995 Sun interview, she recalled that her father, a union member and stonemason, may have given her a taste for activism. She also said she inherited "a love of life and a willingness to try to solve any problem that came to my desk or doorstep" from him.

In the 1970s, while living on South Fulton Avenue, she helped found a community group, Communities Organized to Improve Life.

"She prayed hard and fought hard for the underdogs, the drunks, the drug addicts and the prostitutes," said her daughter, Kathleen Cabrini Nemec of Baltimore.

Mrs. McCurley recalled that period of activism in The Sun interview.

"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," she said of a time when she and some neighbors opened a makeshift survival center.

"Nixon was in the White House. We were against everything," she said. "It was the 1970s, and people were believing they could effect change."

Her first attempt at solving a neighborhood's problems was motivated by 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," she said. "My children were never quick to turn the other cheek."

She said that Baltimore in the 1970s enjoyed 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 her community group's banner. She retired in 1995 as the group's director of neighborhood development.

"As an advocate for the poor and those who couldn't read, she fought behind the scenes and was very astute about politics," said the Rev. Paschal Morlino, a Benedictine priest and her pastor.

Mrs. 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. "The 1970s seem so innocent today. The streets [today] frighten me. 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."

A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 9:30 a.m. today at St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church, 2612 Wilkens Ave., where she was a member.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include six sons, Earl Brendan McCurley of Helena, Mont., Kevin Daniel McCurley, Terrence Joseph McCurley and Sean Christopher McCurley, all of Baltimore, Michael Martin McCurley of Takoma, Wash., and Timothy Jude McCurley of Relay; another daughter, Mary Eileen Young of Baltimore; 19 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. A son, Patrick Gerard McCurley, died in April. Another son, Brian Anthony McCurley, died in 2003. Her husband, Earl M. McCurley, predeceased her.


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