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Madeline Arrington, Philadelphia civic leader who helped tulips bloom in Mantua, dies at 78

Arrington, a board member of the Mantua Civic Association, led the neighborhood's annual tulip-planting program, known as “Bulbs not Bullets."

Madeline Arrington
Madeline ArringtonRead moreCourtesy of the Arrington family

Madeline Arrington, 78, an affordable housing advocate and board member of the Mantua Civic Association who spearheaded the annual Bulbs not Bullets antiviolence tulip-planting program, died Saturday, Oct. 2, of pancreatic cancer at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse in Philadelphia.

She also helped establish the Mantua Urban Peace Garden in the neighborhood just north of Drexel University in West Philadelphia.

And she persuaded Mural Arts Philadelphia designers to include thousands of tulips on the latest Spring Garden Bridge Mural, “Sing Because It Is Heard” by artist Betsy Casaña, , said daughter Sheila Morrison-Wesley.

“The mural blossoms with more than 6,000 tulips, is a historic symbol of growth and development in Mantua,” according to a description by Mural Arts.

“Our communitywide tulip planting was part of Madeline’s work as chairman of the enrichment committee,” said Gwendolyn Morris, secretary of the Mantua Civic Association. “She was focused on how do you enrich the environment in the community, not just beautify it.”

In 2017, Generocity, a social impact news and events organization, recognized Ms. Arrington among its inaugural group of “7over70,” as “impact leaders” in Philadelphia.

It described her as a “tireless and enthusiastic advocate for justice” and noted one program in particular, “Walk Age-Friendly Mantua,”a volunteer-led walkability audit of the community.

Ms. Arrington owned a housing consulting business, Housing Matters, and worked as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, ensuring that federally financed home renovations were completed according to standards.

Her long and varied career also included working as a fashion designer who once lived and studied in Paris, and teaching construction.

She once worked for Tradeswomen Of Purpose/Women In Non-Traditional Work, Inc., or TOP/WIN, teaching women construction skills so they could find employment in jobs that had traditionally been seen as work for men. The women became carpenters, plumbers, electricians and forklift drivers, Morrison-Wesley said.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, Ms. Arrington worked as a Federal Emergency Management Agency field inspector.

When she worked for Philadelphia Neighborhood Housing Services, she helped homeowners in the Cobbs Creek and Carroll Park communities apply for loans and grants to repair their houses.

“She was really passionate about housing and making sure that the families that had been part of Mantua for a long time would not be overlooked” as new development came, Morrison-Wesley said.

Madeline Collins Arrington was born on Aug. 30, 1943, in Philadelphia the only child of Julian Collins and Ola Johnson Collins. They raised her in Mantua along with Ola Collins’ younger brother and sister, Lewis and Bernice Johnson, after their mother died.

Growing up, she was known as “Mad” to family and friends, and attended St. Ignatius Catholic School in West Philadelphia.

She was a 1961 graduate of St. Francis de Sales School, the Powhatan County, Va., boarding school established for Black and Native American girls by St. Katharine Drexel and her family.

After high school, she returned to Philadelphia and attended Cheyney University, but did not graduate. She worked for Conrail for many years, and had two daughters and a brief marriage to Edgar Arrington that ended in divorce.

All the while, she saved her money to eventually pursue a dream of becoming a fashion designer. She attended the Parson’s School of Design in Paris in 1982, and later created her own label and designs.

For a time, she moved to New Jersey and obtained a real estate license.

In 1988, however, Ms. Arrington was arrested and incarcerated for over a year after illegal drugs were found in her car, Morrison-Wesley said.

Morrison-Wesley said her mother maintained that the drugs did not belong to her, and years later had her record expunged.

Her daughter said she talked about her time in prison because that was where she first learned construction skills, receiving certificates in carpentry, electrical work and plumbing. After her release, she lived in transitional housing and earned a college degree in construction technology from Community College of Philadelphia.

“I think it’s good to talk about people’s comeback,” Morrison-Wesley said. “She was able to triumph over that. Sometimes people don’t know your struggles. They see that you are excelling, but they don’t know the story behind the passion and the commitment she had. That had a lot to do with us living in transitional housing after she got out of prison.”

In addition to her daughter, Ms. Arrington is survived by her mother; another daughter, Kendall Thomas; four grandchildren; and many other relatives and friends.

A viewing will be held from 8 to 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, at St. Ignatius Church, 636 N. 43rd St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19104. A Funeral Mass will follow at 10 a.m., with interment at Old Cathedral Cemetery, in Philadelphia.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to Tulip Planters Tribute to Madeline Arrington, Mantua Civic Association , P.O. Box 7701, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104