Nellie Reynolds, 96, a longtime public housing resident and activist who served on the board of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, died Sunday, Aug. 23, at her daughter’s home of heart failure.
Ms. Reynolds began organizing on behalf of public housing tenants in 1968, leading to the creation of the first resident advisory board for public housing in the nation. It inspired hundreds of other such advisory boards around the country, PHA officials said.
“Ms. Reynolds was like a second mother to me,” Kelvin A. Jeremiah, president and CEO of the Housing Authority, said in a statement.
“I am grateful for her wisdom and her sage counsel. She reminded everyone, including me, that they are here to make a difference,” he said. “She was a voice for the unheard and marginalized.”
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke on Tuesday praised Ms. Reynolds as the “conscience of our city.”
“She was a passionate, lifelong advocate of the right of people to decent housing and affordable housing, … She will be deeply missed,” Clarke said.
Ms. Reynolds didn’t just protest for affordable housing. She also took direct action.
She was part of the squatters’ movement, and worked with former State Sen. T. Milton Street Sr. in the 1980s to place tenants into vacant PHA homes.
Asia Coney, a tenant activist and current president of the city’s resident board, got to know Ms. Reynolds when Coney was a young mother who needed housing.
Coney recalled Ms. Reynolds and Street telling PHA they would move people into 200 boarded-up units at the Tasker Homes in South Philadelphia, near the boundary with the Grays Ferry section.
The activists pried off the boards and the squatters moved in. Coney said she was one of them.
“The Grays Ferry council persuaded the PHA to board them up to serve as a border between the white residents [of Grays Ferry] and the Black people in Tasker Homes,” Coney said.
Ms. Reynolds was also key to the more than 20-year fight to have public housing built at Whitman Park, at Second Street and Oregon Avenue, a landmark in the city’s struggle for integration. Then-Mayor Frank L. Rizzo had blocked the development, which was to include single-family subsidized rowhouses.
The mayor denounced the project, saying white people did not want Black people moving into their all-white neighborhood. Ms. Reynolds spearheaded the federal lawsuit that cleared the way for the project, Resident Advisory Board v. Rizzo.
Coney learned to be a tenants’ rights advocate by observing Ms. Reynolds: “The most important thing I learned from her was that you have to stand up for something, or you will fall for anything.”
She also said her mentor was “very quiet. You never heard her raise her voice. But she carried a big stick. That was her power.”
Ms. Reynolds was appointed a PHA commissioner in 1984 and served until 2010, when the entire board resigned in the wake of the federal takeover of the authority..
That year the board also fired its executive director, Carl R. Green, after learning PHA had secretly settled three sexual-harassment complaints against him for $648,000. It later learned the agency had spent $38.3 million in legal fees.
Ms. Reynolds moved into the James Weldon Johnson Homes in North Philadelphia as a teenager, her daughter said. She was born in rural Chatham, Va., in 1924 and had just arrived in Philadelphia with her family.
She was the fifth of six children born to her mother, Elmer, and father, Lloyd Anderson. After her father’s death, her mother moved to the city with her children.
Ms. Reynolds’ daughter, Jacqueline McDowell, said her mother recalled how nice the Johnson Homes were and said people could leave their doors open without locking them.
After graduating from high school, Ms. Reynolds married and had four children. The marriage ended in divorce.
Ms. Reynolds was a longtime member of Zion Baptist Church when it was led by the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan. She loved to travel, read, and go camping.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Reynolds is survived by sons Paul and Steven Reynolds; 10 grandchildren, and many relatives and friends. A son, Douglas, died earlier.