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New book showcases rich Black history of West Baltimore and the people who once lived there

For author and historian, Philip J. Merrill, Baltimore is a treasure trove of Black history and valuable memorabilia that it is worthy of preservation and national reverence.

“The fabric is that rich,” said Merrill, who released a book “Images of America: Old West Baltimore” in November. “The historical narrative is off the charts.”

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Merrill’s 128-page book delves into the history of West Baltimore, which is the country’s largest African American district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, he said.

West Baltimore is the 175-block neighborhood northwest of downtown Baltimore comprised of Harlem Park, Upton, Sandtown, Druid Heights and Madison Park, as designated by the National Register of Historic Places.

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“I have been documenting that community for over 30 years. It gives me a great deal of pain that the city, state and country aren’t fully aware of the significance of this historic district,” Merrill added.

Michael Franch, a member of the Baltimore City Historical Society’s board, called Merrill’s work invaluable to all Baltimoreans regardless of race. Merrill is a skilled collector and historian, he said.

“That’s what takes it to another level,” Franch said. “Some people just collect things. He ends up with pieces of a story.”

Merrill, 58, a self-taught historian, is filled with stories about Baltimore. He lived in Sandtown-Winchester before moving to the historic Ten Hills neighborhood, a little further west.

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Author Philip Merrill, 58, a self-taught historian, released his 128-page book, 'Old West Baltimore,' in November. The book delves into the overlooked history of Black people, specifically in West Baltimore.
Author Philip Merrill, 58, a self-taught historian, released his 128-page book, 'Old West Baltimore,' in November. The book delves into the overlooked history of Black people, specifically in West Baltimore. (Devlin Moore)

He’s founder and CEO of Nanny Jack & Company, an African American heritage consulting business named for his late great-grandmother. She sparked his interest in history. He also served for eight seasons as an appraiser on Maryland Public Television and for six seasons as an appraiser on PBS “Antiques Roadshow.”

His personal and company archives have more than 30,000 pieces from around the country. Many of them — he estimates about 35% — are from the Baltimore region. The artifacts include a rare four-page letter written by Frederick Douglass to a former enslaved man in 1892. Another is a document that lists the names of enslaved Africans on a ship traveling from Europe to Africa to America in 1728 along the triangular slave trade route.

“My goal is that this book will be an appetizer for bigger things,” Merrill said. “I need for them [white people] to reexamine how they view Baltimore history.”

Cover of "Images of America: Old West Baltimore" by Philip Jackson Merrill
Cover of "Images of America: Old West Baltimore" by Philip Jackson Merrill

He began preserving the history of West Baltimore’s Black residents in 2004 when he said the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation [CHAP] placed all of the Black neighborhoods under one umbrella and called it Old West Baltimore, though each deserved its own distinction.

Merrill recalls some of the history of West Baltimore. For instance, the area was the boyhood home for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and attracted such notable visitors as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Madam C.J. Walker and Marcus Garvey.

Merrill attributes West Baltimore’s decline to several things from school desegregation and the destruction of the 1968 riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to urban renewal efforts that displaced Black residents.

A number of Baltimoreans have a warped sense of history when it comes to the city and often omit painful realities when it comes to the treatment of Black residents, Franch said. In some cases, he said, Black people are omitted altogether from Baltimore history.

“People in the Black community need to know that history. People who are not in the Black community need to know that history,” Franch said. “It’s all of our history.”

Merrill wants the younger Black generation to resist the temptation to throw out their grandmother’s handmade quilt or love letters from World War II or even funeral programs, as he believes those items have monetary and sentimental value. He recommends that they keep these items as a way of building generational wealth.

“It motivates me to drive and find content that doesn’t exist anywhere,” said Merrill, who now works at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. “This stuff needs to be front and center. If you know your history, it is the blueprint for your success today.”

Merrill will discuss his latest book during a free virtual talk when he kicks off the 2021 Baltimore History Evenings series on January 21.

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor, Sundra Hominik at shominik@baltsun.com.

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