The legacy of Millard E. Terrell in Newark burns bright

No matter how late at night, residents were never turned away when they knocked on the door of apartment 2B.

They knew Millard E. Terrell would get out of bed to fix their problem - whatever it was - at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Homes, a Newark public housing complex that was renamed after him in 1987, the year following his death.

There might have been a flood or blown fuse in the basement of one of the buildings. At that hour their fellow resident Terrell would grab his flashlight, a set of maintenance keys and take care of business.

"He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he refused it,'' Terrell was often known to say, quoting Dante, one of his favorite philosophers.

Terrell lived by this creed.  His son shared it with me when we sat down to talk about his dad, who is the sole reason why current residents of the Ironbound complex have fought so hard to stop the homes from being demolished.

"That's the kind of guy my father was,'' said Stanley Terrell, a former Star-Ledger reporter of 38 years. "If he saw something and he knew he could do something about it, he just stepped up.''

It wasn't because Millard E. Terrell was tenant president for 25 years or because he was the first tenant to become a Newark Housing Authority Commissioner, a post he held for 13 years until his death in 1986. 

He did it because he loved the community and its people. He was Mr. FDR Homes. He was Mr. Terrell Homes, a stern hardworking man who got things done.

"That's why we say we're a village,'' said Rita Fortenberry, who lived in the third-floor apartment directly above the Terrell family. "He was like the godfather of the neighborhood.''

From Terrell, they learned how to be a community. It's why they cling to a time when neighbors looked out for each other's children. If someone couldn't get to the store, they'd picked up a loaf of bread or a carton of milk. No one went hungry.

Outsiders were questioned by residents wanting to know who they were visiting. The tenant families could fight among themselves, but would band together if someone from another neighborhood tried to start trouble.

"The things he (Millard Terrell) did made us have pride in one another,'' said Rosemary Hoarsely, who went to grade school with Stanley Terrell. "He taught us that your apartment is not your apartment and your neighbor is not your neighbor.''

Your apartment is your home, she said, and your neighbor is your family.

Terrell Homes has been the one place in  Newark where some residents have lived for more than 50 years. But the housing authority decided in 2014 that the development should be closed.

Officials at the agency said the 275-unit complex was old and costly to maintain. Environmental concerns lingered, as well, because it is located near chemical companies and at one time 650 tons of contaminated soil was removed the grounds.

Between housing authority and city council meetings, residents have been persistent in their outrage and it has worked. The housing authority did not vote recently to submit the application for demolition to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A new plan, introduced by East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador, is emerging to save a portion of it. Stanley Terrell and the residents are relieved for the moment, knowing that the Terrell Homes legacy is still solid as the brick complex built along the Passaic River on Chapel Street.

"Too often we tear stuff down and it gets erased,'' Stanley Terrell said. "Stuff gets lost and we don't know how we got there. It's important to remember how we got there.''

His father was one of the first tenants to move into the complex named after President Roosevelt when it opened in 1946. During the next five years, Terrell didn't waste time advocating for families.

He helped start the Tenants League (think of tenant association), which put together a menu of programs that had the community spinning with activity.

Pre-school, kindergarten and first-grade classes were on site. The recreation center was open after school. Teenagers had canteen dances, and no one dared try to hide in the corner for some funny business.

Mr. Terrell would be watching. He was always around doing something. It could have been grooming tenants to be leaders, telling young people not to loiter, helping residents improve their lives

"Daddy was always trying to pull somebody out of the flames,'' Stanley Terrell said. 

In the winter, Christmas parties were memorable, with food and gifts he solicited from area businesses. The summers were just as festive when he kicked off "Fun Day," a day-long buffet of excitement. There'd be games like kick ball and bobbing for apples. Charcoal grills were filled with hamburgers and hot dogs.

Terrell stayed busy, but always made time for his family. He and his late wife, Wilda, were married 44 years and had four children. Stanley, Allyson, Michael and Veronica Sweeney.

Born in Roanoke, Ala., Terrell came to Newark in 1945 after serving in the Army during World War II. Once here, the decorated soldier and staff sergeant found work as a civilian employee at military facilities in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Bayonne. He retired in 1985 as a supervisor of the Air Force's transportation audit section.

In his spare time, and there wasn't much, Terrell would relax, listening to his extensive jazz collection that included John Coltrane, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others.

When he died, at age 66, Fortenberry said, residents were lost, disconnected. Their family member was gone, but not forgotten. Everyone, including local, state and federal officials, showed up for the rededication ceremony. They gathered on the black top playground that is now filled with overgrown weeds to have his name last forever.

"He was the one person who kept them (residents) on the map and in the loop,'' said former Mayor Sharpe James, who was there that day. "Mr. Terrell let all of us know that they were human beings and that they had the same hopes, aspirations and dreams and that we shouldn't just write them off.''

The housing authority tried.

Residents won't let it happen.

For within them, dwells the spirit of Millard E. Terrell.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment