Mary Francis Holmes, the ‘great-grandmother of Murphy Homes’ housing project, dies

Mary Francis Holmes had been one of the best-known residents at Murphy Homes before the housing project was demolished.

Mary Francis Holmes, who was known as the great-grandmother of the now-demolished Murphy Homes housing project and raised her 14 children at the Argyle Avenue high-rise, died of complications from old age Aug. 12 at her West Baltimore home. She was 94.

Mrs. Holmes resided for more than 20 years at the 14-story complex and pushed the detonating button to dynamite the structure in 1999 in the first step to be replaced by low-rise homes.


Born in Chase City, Virginia, and raised in Mecklenburg County, she was the daughter of George and Mary Oliver.

She was a graduate of the Thyne Institute, a high school established in 1867 for newly freed men by the United Presbyterian Church. As a young woman, she worked in a laundry.


She married William Blake Holmes, and the couple moved to Baltimore.

“This move makes her one of 6 million African Americans to escape the poor economic conditions and racial violence of the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration,” said her great-granddaughter Rae Scott, who was born at Murphy Homes.

“She was self-sufficient. She would walk to a grocery store on her own,” Ms. Scott said. “She had authority, and people respected her. She would send us to help her older friends. She was a community elder.”

She had 14 children and settled into a three-bedroom apartment, 3-K, at George B. Murphy Homes in 1978 after her husband became sick and could not work.

In a 1999 Sun story, she said she resented having to be there initially but soon became emotionally attached to Murphy Homes.

“I was one of those people who said I would never live in public housing,” she said.

But when city housing officials announced that the high-rise would be taken down, she said, “This [demolition] upsets me. It had been my home for so long.”

She went on to say, “It had to happen, and God knew it. He knew we needed a decent place for our people to stay.”


Mrs. Holmes recalled in 2001 that Murphy Homes had its troubles.

“Over the years, she endured the terrible changes crime and poverty brought to Murphy Homes,” The Sun reported. “She watched the project change from a neighborly place where children went trick-or-treating and residents set up their stereos for impromptu ‘block parties’ to a violent place nicknamed ‘Murder Homes.’”

She became one of the apartment’s best-known residents. She began her leadership role by organizing children’s birthdays. She was named Tenant Council president, advocated for improved conditions and created a familial environment in the middle of the chaotic, crime-ridden community, her great-granddaughter said.

“With hundreds of former residents — including her own family — watching from the outside perimeter, Holmes, 70, pressed the button that detonated 375 pounds of dynamite into the high rises,” said her great-granddaughter. “She went on to become somewhat of a spokesperson for the legacy of Murphy Homes.”

Mrs. Holmes took up a temporary residence at McCulloh Homes and later lived in Heritage Crossing — the new development built on the site of old Murphy Homes. Her McCulloh Homes apartment was used as a location for an episode of “The Wire.”

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Mrs. Holmes moved into a duplex home at Heritage Crossing on McCulloh Circle.


“If you’re on welfare and you want a house, then get you a job and get off welfare and buy you a house,” Mrs. Holmes said. “[They’re] not supposed to make it easy for us. We got to work and get our own.”

“My grandmother is the great-grandmother of Murphy Homes not because she raised a family big enough to populate the community by itself but because she created a safe haven in the middle of a troubled community and never turned her back on it,” said her great-granddaughter.

Her family has created a Mary F. Holmes Legacy Foundation and is planning to honor her at the Perkins Square Gazebo in West Baltimore.

Survivors include three sons, Donald Holmes, Harry Holmes and Joseph Holmes; seven daughters, Margaret Holmes, Lela Holmes, Patricia Holmes, Linda Holmes, Kim Holmes, Sharon Holmes and Joyce Holmes, all of the Baltimore area; 35 grandchildren, 81 great-grandchildren; and 39 great-great-grandchildren. Her husband, William Blake Holmes, a construction worker, died in 1993.

She outlived three sons, William Holmes, Kenneth Holmes and Anthony Holmes, and a daughter, Elizabeth Holmes.

A funeral was held Aug. 20 at the Wylie Funeral Home.