Bertina Larkins Nick, a community leader and lifelong resident of Annapolis, died yesterday of congestive heart failure at Anne Arundel Medical Center. She was 57.
At the city's Stanton Center on West Washington Street, where Ms. Nick worked as the president of the Greater Clay Street Development Corp., the mood turned somber as news of her unexpected death spread.
A sister of Ms. Nick's, Deborah Brown, was helping to cook and serve an early Thanksgiving dinner for 2,000 people, which center officials said would be dedicated to the memory of Ms. Nick.
"She had a dream of African-Americans being self-supporting and independent, in charge of their own neighborhood," said Ms. Brown, an Annapolis resident.
Defending the African-American community in Annapolis from encroachment, which started with urban renewal projects in the 1960s and early 1970s, became Ms. Nick's life work. Encouraged as a young woman by her mentor, the Rev. Leroy Bowman, she quickly became known as someone who never wavered when she championed a cause.
"She was a great crusader and activist," said Sally Bean, a Stanton Center employee. "She got the job done, whatever it was."
The oldest daughter of George Larkins, a Naval Academy barber, and Theola Mae Larkins, a domestic worker, Ms. Nick knew the bite of segregated streets and institutions as a child.
Descended from South County slaves, her family was well known in Annapolis' African-American community, which lost some of its cohesion as rowhouses in the Clay Street community near downtown were razed to make way for large structures such as a county parking garage.
Even as she raised seven children largely as a single mother, Ms. Nick made it her mission to keep her neighborhood intact and find creative ways to revitalize it and capture some of the magic of its heyday. One of her most effective partners in this effort, colleagues said, was the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, which built several dwellings in the area.
She also helped turn what once was the only high school for black students in Anne Arundel County into the Stanton Center.
"Her hobby was work, work, work," said Kirby J. McKinney, executive director of the Stanton Center. "Her life work kept her here."
In discussing issues and problems in the community, Ms. Nick commanded respect with her presence, Mr. McKinney said. Beyond the borders of Clay Street, she became a leading voice for her community throughout the city.
"She made you do your homework, because she would do hers," Mr. McKinney said. "She was dedicated to making the underdog, the low-income and the needy, well-represented."
Family members said that Ms. Nick completed her high school equivalency diploma while raising her family. To earn a bachelor's degree from Lincoln University in the Philadelphia area, Ms. Nick commuted between her family home and evening courses while her sister watched her children.
Plans for funeral services were incomplete.
In addition to her sister, Ms. Nick is survived by four sons, Juan Larkins of Annapolis, Dante Nick of Shepherdstown, W. Va., George Nick of Hagerstown and Michael Perkins of Selbyville, Del.; three daughters, Antoinette Blunt of Atlanta, Makietta Nick of Annapolis and Nicole Perkins of Selbyville; a brother, George Larkins of Las Vegas,; two other sisters, Dorothy Larkins Medley of Glen Burnie and Toni Larkins Williams of Harwood; and 10 grandchildren.