(NNPA)–Bertha Knox Gilkey, a community organizer who played a key role in the improvement of public housing in St. Louis and around the nation, died Saturday, May 24, 2014, while she was in the process of receiving cancer treatment, according to her daughter, Yvette Gilkey Shuford. She was 66.
Gilkey had moved from St. Louis to be with her daughter and family in Prattville, Alabama, six weeks ago, said Shuford, who declined to specify where her mother passed away.
“Mom was a strong advocate for the community for many years,” said Shuford, Gilkey’s only surviving child. “I gave up my mom for the people in St. Louis and anywhere she was needed to go fight.”
A wake will be held 5-8 p.m. Friday, May 30 at Central Baptist Church, 2842 Washington Ave. Funeral services will be held 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 31, also at Central Baptist, followed by a repast at Carr Square, 1629 Biddle St.
“She was an outspoken advocate for her community who played a central role in making St. Louis a national model for making public housing livable for families,” Kit Bond, former Missouri governor and U.S. senator, told The American.
“Bertha was passionate about improving the living conditions of residents of public housing and low-income families,” said Richard Baron, a founding principal at McCormack Baron Salazar, who partnered with Gilkey from her early years on many projects. “She never lost her fight.”
“I must have traveled to 30 cities with her,” said community activist Anthony Shaheed. “She’d get right in them gang members’ faces and say, ‘I’m getting ready to call the police on you.’ She’d walk those grounds. If you were up to no good and see Bertha coming, you knew you had a problem.”
From Arkansas to activist
Bertha Knox Gilkey was born in Round Pound, Arkansas on March 18, 1948 to Willie and Irma Robinson, the second oldest of 16 children, according to Shuford. Though her parents lived in St. Louis, she was raised by her grandmother in Arkansas, moving to St. Louis in her early teens after her grandfather passed away. Her mother was living in Cochran Gardens, a public housing complex near downtown St. Louis.
“She moved in with her mom,” Shuford said, “and became an activist.”
Baron first met her in 1969, when Gilkey was active in a rent strike to improve conditions at the embattled public housing complex. “She wasn’t a leader of the strike,” Baron said, correcting previous reports. “But she clearly was part of the Cochran tenant organization, which was part of a citywide group protesting issues at the St. Louis Housing Authority.”
Baron said Gilkey served on the citywide Tenant Affairs Board and was elected to head the Cochran Tenant Management Organization when it moved to a tenant management model in 1976. She later served as commissioner for the housing authority.
Michael Jones, who is now senior policy advisor for County Executive Charlie Dooley, was head of the St. Louis Housing Authority in 1986 when it signed its first tenant management agreements with Gilkey at Cochran Gardens and Loretta Hall at Carr Square.
“In 1984 when I was announced as head of the housing authority, Bertha picketed my house,” Jones said. “When I left in 1989, based on policy differences between myself and H.U.D., where the mayor (Vince Schoemehl) took H.U.D.’s side, she protested that. So she protested my coming, and she protested my leaving.”
In the meantime, they made history together, turning operational control of public housing facilities in St. Louis over to tenant management for the first time.
“The basis of our evolving relationship,” Jones said, “is we were both committed to the idea that just because people are low-income did not mean they should not have the same level of services and justice that people with money had.”
As Gilkey organized the community to make history, she participated in the major black empowerment movements of the time, identifying as a Black Panther and then as a member of the Nation of Islam.
“My mom made me wear those things on my head,” Shuford said. “The kids would make fun of me. I’d say, ‘Mama, please let me wear some shorts.’”
Shuford had one sibling, Antoine Gilkey, who was better suited for the activist life.
“My brother was more like my mother,” Shuford said. “He went to meetings and boycotts and pickets because he wanted to. I went because Mama told me I had to do it.”
The mother who was not afraid to confront gangbangers did not tolerate insubordination from her children.
“I feared Mama like I feared God,” Shuford said. “My brother was 6’2”, and she would make him get on his knees and beat him. Mama did not play.”
To get the community involved in organizing, she used a more savory strategy.
“She was an exceptional cook, and her negotiating tool to get people to go picket was to invite you over for a plate of spaghetti or mac-n-cheese,” Shuford said. “Now that she done fed you, you’re all happy and ready and committed to do whatever she had committed to do.”
Pioneer fighting for federal funds
According to a 1992 New York Times report, when Gilkey had been unpaid tenant manager at Cochran for 15 years, she was earning an annual income of more than $30,000 as a consultant, traveling cross-country to teach the tenant management model. The Times reported that Gilkey was paying $786 a month to live in a three-bedroom apartment next to neighbors whose rent was low as $19 a month.
She insisted she could not lead the movement any other way.
“She couldn’t smell that pissy elevator unless she was down there,” Shuford said. “She couldn’t hear the gunshots unless she was down there. She couldn’t tell you if gang members were sitting in the hallway unless she was down there.”
Though Gilkey was conversant with public housing tenants and gangbangers, she mixed equally well with developers like Baron and public officials at all levels, reaching all the way to the White House. President George H.W. Bush visited Cochran Gardens in 1992, and his H.U.D. Secretary Jack Kemp developed close family ties with Gilkey that their children now maintain.
This, and the location of Cochran Gardens on the edge of downtown, resulted in a massive influx of federal funds that helped to improve the complex. The Times reported that Cochran benefitted from more than $33 million in renovation grants from 1978 to 1992, more than twice the funding awarded to any other St. Louis housing complex in that period.
“She was a pioneer behind fighting to get federal money to go in and rehab these high rises with poor conditions,” Shuford said. “She fought real hard to get developers involved.”
Gilkey went on to develop other local projects in partnership with Baron and others, such as O’Fallon Place and Murphy Park, which brought a new holistic approach to public housing. The I. Jerome and Rosemary Flance Early Childhood Education Center, which is opening soon at Murphy Park, is marked by her spirit, Baron said.
“Early childhood education is something Bertha was always interested in,” Baron said. “We got the Ford Foundation to fund an infant care center at Cochran in the late ‘70s. She spent a lot of time at the Henry School, which is adjacent to Cochran. It was the combination of her interest in affordable housing and schools that distinguished her from others who were involved with public housing.”
In later years, she worked with school choice groups, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
“Once she got some public/private partnership established so the tenants could be proud of where they stay, she started to look at kids and focus on kids,” Shuford said.
“She knew they started off as good kids, but ended up committing suicide or killing each other in gangs. She told me, ‘Your generation and the ones after you are lost. We need to go fight for these kids so they know what to do and we can keep the world going.’”
Tragically, she lost one of her only two children when Antoine Gilkey died in 2005 from a staph infection.
“That affected her more than any one thing,” Shuford said. “I did the whole funeral for my brother. She never even visited his grave site. She said, ‘I don’t have enough in me to go visit his grave site.’”
Gilkey cherished her two grandchildren, Percy and Ricky Shuford, who called her “Nanna.”
“My mama was everybody’s mama,” Shuford said, “but once these grandkids came, everything revolved around them.”
Shuford recalled being dismayed when she sent her boys to her mother one summer only to hear that they had appeared on the network news, picketing with Nanna.
“She’d take them to Six Flags,” Shuford said, “but before that you had to work, make some flyers, knock on some doors.”
Shuford said two projects in memory of her mother are in the works. A petition will be circulated to name a street in St. Louis after Bertha Gilkey. Shuford and her husband Rick also intend to start a family foundation called Our Kids Rock. For more information, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.