Bettyjean C. Murphy, a pioneering African American developer, historic preservationist and community activist whose mantra was “I won’t build it if I wouldn’t live there myself,” died Sunday at a son’s home in Brooklyn, New York, of pancreatic cancer. The Roland Park Place and former longtime Mount Washington resident was 79.
“I knew her well, and we worked on a lot of community development projects together,” said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. “She specifically liked renovating old buildings, and she was committed to turning around the downtown area. She was interested in the forgotten parts of downtown that she remembered, and she worked hard bringing them to life.”
Mr. Schmoke added: “Bettyjean was very active both as a business person and a civic leader while at the same time raising her children.”
“I was so proud to have known Bettyjean. She was one of the kindest and most thoughtful developers I ever worked with professionally. She was a trailblazer,” said former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
“She cared about the people when she was working on her projects. She had such an eye for architecture and the possibilities in forgotten communities.” Ms. Rawlings-Blake said. “She was always looking to do excellent and beautiful work, and she focused on that. She cared. She was a great person who cared about her two cities, Baltimore and New York, and will be greatly missed.”
“Our city lost a giant with the passing of Bettyjean Murphy,” City Council President Nick J. Mosby wrote on Facebook
“The first Black female developer in Baltimore, she re-imagined what dilapidated buildings could become, transformed eyesores into assets and created quality housing for people often overlooked: Our seniors, neighbors with disabilities and low-income families,” Mr. Mosby wrote. “She led with a spirit of partnership and a desire to make our neighborhoods beautiful places to live. Our city is better for all of Bettyjean’s tireless work. Her memory is a blessing.”
The former Bettyjean Carter, daughter of LeRoy Carter, president of the New York chapter of the Urban League, and his wife, Hallie Mae Lumpkin Carter, was born in Atlanta and raised in Queens, New York.
A graduate of Flushing High School, she attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in New York City.
In the early 1960s, she was the first African American woman to be admitted to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, where she planned to pursue Arabic studies but married instead and “came to Baltimore with her husband,” said her daughter, Rebecca Murphy of Chestertown.
“A lifelong Arabist, she was incredibly knowledgeable about the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and enjoyed sharing that knowledge with others,” her daughter said. “A trip to Jordan in the early 1990s was a highlight of her life.”
Ms. Murphy immersed herself in Baltimore and national politics and in 1972 was a Shirley Chisholm delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Miami. Ms. Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black woman to seek the presidential nomination.
As a community activist, Ms. Murphy worked in West Baltimore as a family planning counselor, and after moving to Mount Washington with her family in the mid-1970s, joined the Mount Washington Improvement Association and volunteered at the Mount Washington Elementary School, where three of her four children were students.
For a number of years, she worked as a real estate agent and then turned to development when she established the Carter Development Corp., which later became the Savannah Development Corp.
“I tried to dissuade her from going into development, because sometime you win, and sometime you lose. It’s a tough business,” said James L. “Jim” Ginsburg, president of Waterfront Group Inc. and a longtime Mount Washington neighbor and friend, who later worked with Ms. Murphy on several projects. “And as a person, she was good to work with.”
But it was her work as the first African American woman developer in Baltimore that left a mark on the city.
In 1984, she established the Savannah Development Co., whose mission was converting abandoned buildings and former schools, transforming them into affordable housing primarily for the elderly and handicapped.
“Bettyjean was a formidable woman who loved her projects, most of which involved historic preservation from Park Heights Avenue to Charles Street,” said Alfred W. Barry III, a former longtime city planner and founder and head of AB Associates, a Baltimore land use planning firm.
Ms. Murphy had to overcome many obstacles, including being an African American woman breaking into a development business largely dominated by males, said Deb Shaw, who joined Savannah Development Co. in 1991 as business manager and worked there for the next four years.
“She was a fierce advocate for her projects and wouldn’t give up. She was formidable and amazing when it came to persuading and overcoming her foes,” Ms. Shaw said.
“But she was very tenacious and overcame many roadblocks as a woman of color who was in development, and she was great at networking,” Ms. Shaw recalled. “Bettyjean was brilliant and committed to affordable housing and improving Baltimore. She was dogged and kept on going no matter what roadblocks were put in her way.”
Her award-winning projects included Alcott Place in Park Heights, which had been the Louisa May Alcott Elementary School, or School 59, dating to 1910, which she transformed in 1990 into 44 apartments for the elderly, working with the development firm of Struever Brothers, Eccles and Rouse.
The architectural firm of Cho, Wilks and Benn Inc. was in charge of the conversion of the $4 million project.
“We both shared a love of old buildings. Bettyjean was a great visionary, and not only did we work together, we became great friends,” said Diane Cho, now a principal at Quinn Evans Architects. “School 59 was a grand building, and she had a vision for Sandtown-Winchester and could see what it could become, while at the same time turning around and stabilizing the neighborhood. It was important for her to do that kind of thing.”
Of the blighted neighborhood where the closed school stood, Ms. Murphy told The Baltimore Sun at the time that its restoration will “enhance the whole neighborhood.”
A year earlier, Ms. Murphy had overseen the conversion of the Robert W. Coleman School in Mondawmin, into Coleman Manor, a 50-unit senior housing complex.
“She was successful in reinvigorating the neighborhood, and three U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretaries came and visited the project, because it was that significant,” Mr. Ginsburg said. “She took on tough projects and got the city to pump money into them like the Park Heights corridor, and she also did wonderful stuff on Charles Street. These projects are speculative, but she was interested in trying to figure out how to save a neighborhood.”
“Baltimore used to be the capital of historic preservation,” Ms. Murphy told The Sun in a 1990 interview, saying that the projects were “just directed to the middle-class market or the commercial market. Historic preservation is for all people — poor people too.”
In 2000, she converted a vacant building in the 300 block of N. Charles St. into loft apartments, and her Coel-Grant-Higgs Senior Center opened two years later in East Baltimore.
Her work resulted in Ms. Murphy’s winning awards from both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Institute of Architects.
Ms. Murphy, who moved to Roland Park Place several years ago, retired in 2011.
She was an avid reader of history and especially enjoyed reading about the Civil War and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. She was also a dog lover.
The Morning Sun Newsletter
Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by three sons, Seth Murphy of Bolton Hill, Hassan Murphy of Washington and Joshua Murphy of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and six grandchildren. Her marriage to William H. “Billy” Murphy ended in divorce.