(Photo by Johanna Kaiser for boston.com)
From making sure every family had a Thanksgiving dinner to her work on the city's Tenants Policy Council, Ruth Barkley spent more than 40 years trying to improve the lives of neighbors at the Cathedral Public Housing Development and of public housing residents throughout Boston.
Barkley, who died last year, moved into the housing development, on Washington Street, in 1965 and soon began advocating for tenants and working to improve communities across the city.
Now, the community leader and activist has been immortalized with the renaming of the Cathedral Public Housing Development to the Ruth Lillian Barkley Apartments.
Family members, friends, neighbors, and city officials gathered Saturday at the corner of Harrison Avenue and Msgr. Reynolds Way to unveil the new sign bearing Barkley’s name and honor her work.
“This young woman was so valuable to the tenants in this public housing development and public housing throughout the city of Boston,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said outside the housing complex.
Barkley served as chairwoman of the Cathedral Tenants United Inc. Task Force where she worked to improve the physical and social conditions of the Cathedral Housing Development and ensure every resident had safe, decent housing.
As the chairwoman of the Boston Housing Authority's Tenants Policy Council, Barkley successfully advocated for a grievance and appeals panel that still meets with residents weekly. She also served on the authority's Monitoring Committee and Resident Advisory Board where she advocated for resident in public housing across the city.
“She had a great voice there, which was always heard,” Menino said.
Barkley's longtime friend and fellow resident advisory board member, Edna Wilrich, recalled the many other improvements Barkley established, including a walking program, summer food programs for children, and making sure every child had a toy for Christmas.
“While you were asleep she was thinking for you,” Wilrich said.
While Barkley was chairwoman the task force received non-profit status, allowing her to apply for grants to fund resident programs such as job skill training and health education.
“Ruth was a woman that cared about everyone. She didn’t care if you were black, green, purple or white. It didn’t matter," Wilrich said. "If she thought you were wrong you were going to listen to her or else.”
Local officials also fondly recalled working with Barkley, and praised her commitment to improving and promoting public housing.
“Ruth Barkley was an example for everybody," City Councilor Bill Linehan said. "She had something to say and that something was important. It’s people like her that were at the foundation of tenants’ rights organizations.”
“Life for Ruth was not about her. It was about community, it was about organizing," Councilor At-Large Felix Arroyo said. "I think she would say that’s it’s a privilege for her to have that name because it proves to people that being active in your community matters.”
State Rep. Byron Rushing called Barkley an inspiration for community organizers.
“If you want to find out how to do it, ask how Ruth did it,” said Rushing, who told residents never to be ashamed of where they live. "We are honoring one of the great community organizers from Boston who was able to tell people just those things: ‘Do not be ashamed about where you’re living. You’re living in a great place. Let's get organized and have it be the best place in this city.' Let us work to maintain that tradition.”
Barkley's daughter Darlene held back tears as she promised to help continue the programs her mother spent her life building.
"I would love to be here for everything that goes on, as much as possible. If you need me, I will come," she said. "Whatever it is I'm here. I am Ruth Barkley's daughter, and I would love to live her legacy."
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