Mabel O. Smith has spent decades preserving the memory of a man whose name most people in Baltimore wouldn’t recognize, though he played a significant role in its African-American history.
Harry O. Wilson Sr. was a black businessman, philanthropist and bank owner in Maryland at the turn of the 20th century. In 1917, he bought large tracts of land in Northeast Baltimore, built homes there and sold them to black families. The neighborhood, Wilson Park, helped advance a growing affluent African-American population in Baltimore at a time when laws prevented blacks from buying homes in all but a few of the city’s neighborhoods.
“This community was an incubator in being able to advance colored people,” said Dale Green, an assistant professor of architecture and historic preservation at Morgan State University. “To be able to walk out your door and across the street is a performer, a doctor, a professor. … It played a tremendous role for that community and their children, and their children’s children.”
A century after Wilson built the neighborhood near Cold Spring Lane and The Alameda, he’s finally getting some recognition.
Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation is recommending the City Council approve a measure to designate Wilson’s former home at 4423 Craddock Ave. a historic landmark.
Smith bought the home in the 1990s and spent years restoring it.
“I’m hoping it will give the neighborhood more spark, make people want to participate more,” Smith said. “The young people need to know a sense of pride in the community. We need to show them.”
Born in 1873, Wilson became a shoemaker, but gave up that craft to found his insurance business, Mutual Benefit Society, in 1903.
He was one of the few black bank owners in Maryland. Wilson Bank was one of the few that didn’t close during the Great Depression.
Wilson, who was the son of the city’s first black school principal, became a philanthropist and advocate for his community.
He called for Baltimore to dedicate more resources to black students.
When he was invited by a white neighborhood association to a meeting to discuss segregation, he responded in an open letter published in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper.
“Your letter was received today, but was evidently addressed to the wrong person,” Wilson wrote in 1924. “I am in no [way] interested in the Madison Avenue Improvement Association and neither am I interested in segregation.”
Historian Philip Merrill, who has served on the city’s historic preservation commission, said Wilson has earned the latter-day recognition.
“This is a story of hard work, where hard work and determination and honesty paid off,” he said. “He started from humble beginnings, rose through the ranks to be a wealthy person who gave back and never forgot where he came from.”
Wilson acquired the land for what became Wilson Park from German-Americans who had been unable to sell the property to white Americans because of anti-German sentiment during World War I.
Historians do not know how much land Wilson amassed. Green, the Morgan State professor, estimated at least 100 homes in the area were built under Wilson’s oversight or bought by him and resold.
They suspect he developed property far outside the neighborhood’s present-day boundaries — Cold Spring Lane and Willow Avenue to the north, 43rd Street to the south, The Alameda to the east and York Road to the west.
An advertisement in the Afro-American that year invited families to a new community “open to our race” with 200 lots and six cottages “with all conveniences,” including hot water, heat, electric lights and large front porches. Lots started at $300; cottages went for $1,600.
Antero Pietila wrote in his book “Not In My Neighborhood” that Wilson Park and nearby Morgan Park were unlike the housing typically available to blacks at the time.
“Most of Baltimore’s blacks lived caged in three main districts” in the eastern, western and southern parts of the city, he wrote.
The neighborhood offered a suburban alternative to West Baltimore’s dense rowhomes for families with the means to buy property.
“It wasn’t like you became a doctor or a top entertainer and you could decide to go live somewhere else,” Green said. “Harry O. Wilson provided a choice.”
The neighborhood’s single-family homes, with front and back lawns, attracted several luminaries: Jazz legend Cab Calloway, civil rights lawyer William Ashbie Hawkins and Nick Aaron Ford, a literary critic who helped establish black studies as an academic field, all called Wilson Park home.
Smith and her husband moved to Wilson Park from Towson in 1956. The newlyweds were enchanted by the neighborhood, where they lived among teachers and other professionals. The children all played together, Smith said, and the lawn parties were “fabulous.”
But the neighborhood has changed.
The dirt road has been paved, the children have grown up and many have left. As original or second homeowners died or moved away, some properties have been turned into rentals.
Smith and a small contingent of neighbors tried years ago to get the neighborhood designated as a historic district.
Henashena Hayes, who lives on Kenilworth Avenue, said a historic designation could prompt residents to learn more about the neighborhood’s roots. They could look up to Wilson as a role model.
“Baltimore has a lot of history, but the young people are not aware of it,” Hayes said. “All they see is crime.”
But there weren’t enough neighbors willing to subject their properties to the more stringent home improvement regulations applied in a historic district to secure the designation.
Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, who represents the area, said designating Wilson’s home as a landmark could be a first step to making another attempt at establishing the neighborhood as a historic district.
“Even among people who feel like they know something about the history of the African-American community, almost no one is aware of the relevance of Wilson Park,” Henry said.
Wilson’s grandson, Harry L. Wilson, said hearing about the historical dedication has made him want to learn more his family history.
Harry Wilson, a doctor in El Paso, Texas, said his father, Harry O. Wilson Jr., didn’t share many details about their namesake.
The grandson, whose mother is Dutch, grew up in a mostly white neighborhood in Montgomery County, he said, and had limited interaction with his father’s side of the family.
“Heritage is important, and unknown heritage, not knowing about your heritage, is a deprivation,” said Wilson, 72. “It is important for all communities, of all ethnic backgrounds, to do the best they can to preserve family heritage and community heritage.”
Back at 4423 Craddock Avenue, Smith is pleased just to know Wilson’s legacy will be memorialized.
She remembers vividly the day she was out walking her dog, saw a sign that the dilapidated home was to be auctioned, and made the biggest impulse purchase of her life.
Smith knew little about Wilson at the time, but felt compelled to keep the home from being torn down or taken over by an outside developer.
“There was just something about it that was like a drawing card,” Smith said. “It drew me in.”
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.