Piece by piece, collector assembles African-American history and culture A Life's Mission


Somewhere in his parents' attic, Philip Merrill's collection of 22,000 baseball cards gathers dust. Who knows where those hubcaps he used to grab from the roadside are stashed? Or the baseballs and bats. Or the marbles.

All discarded passions. They are nothing, nothing compared to Mr. Merrill's newest collection: the slave shackles, KKK robe, 1944 yearbook from Tuskegee (Ala.) Institute, Muhammad Ali boxing puppet, the slave quilt with red squares (a cryptic show of support for abolitionism), the unused tin of Joe Louis hair pomade, a wax phonograph cylinder titled "If the Man on the Moon Were a Coon" and thousands of rare jazz, blues and gospel 78s.

Mr. Merrill, 32, has amassed his remarkable collection with an unswerving mission. With old church deeds, tax receipts, first-edition books and daguerreotypes, he seeks to retrieve and resurrect African-American history lost to public memory. Whether the image in question is glowing or degrading, it is always invaluable.

"I want to show people how we've been portrayed in different time periods throughout history," says Mr. Merrill, who is exhibiting a cross-section of his collection at the top of Baltimore's World Trade Center through Feb. 28.

To that end, Mr. Merrill has turned his obsession into a business, Nanny Jack & Co. Inc. Named for his late great-grandmother, Nanny Jack was formed to educate audiences about black history and culture.

Mr. Merrill serves as a historian and a consultant at Maryland schools, libraries and colleges. At a recent appearance before the Bryn Mawr lower school, he gave a high-energy, if disjointed, crash course on African-American popular culture by way of his extensive collection of dolls.

Dashing around the school auditorium, he flipped an old topsy-turvy doll to reveal first a black servant girl and then a gussied-up white girl. He displayed Fred Sanford, Diana Ross, Fat Albert and Flip Wilson dolls, all curiosities to the 10-and-under set. He had a Cosby kid and an "ethnically correct" doll from the early 1970s made by Shindana, a company dedicated to black empowerment. And there were hand-stitched rag dolls, an Aunt Jemima doll, a delightful black Raggedy Ann and a vintage 1965 black Girl Scout doll clad in green.

Mr. Merrill's young audience was rapt, albeit a tad confused by his breathless presentation.

Mr. Merrill approaches all endeavors with the same whirlwind fervor.

He works for the Human Development Institute, a family-owned job-training firm based in Baltimore. In November, he was elected to the Democratic Central Committee. Mr. Merrill has served as well on the Charles Village Civic Association and on various community relations and preservation boards.

Always, there is time for his first love.

"I started collecting as a little child," Mr. Merrill says.

His father, George, remembers: "He just always liked to look at things and collect things and learn about things. It was just something that was a part of Philip."

While he played ball and rode his bike and did all the things little boys do, "In many ways he was a little old man," George Merrill says. At 6 years old, "He was very serious. . . . He was very close to his great-grandmother. He would just sit and talk with her and she would tell him stories."

When he moved out of his parents' Ten Hills home in 1989, Mr. Merrill "decided to get a real hobby," one based on a love "of old black things" instilled by Nanny Jack, who died at age 98 that same year. He bought his first piece at an antique bottle show, where collectors gather to admire vintage flasks, jugs and tinted bottles that once held medicine, soda and beer.

Mr. Merrill's network of sources, dealers and brokers now crisscrosses the country. By phone, fax and letter, he tries to keep one step ahead of fierce competition in the black memorabilia field.

Unlike some collectors, Mr. Merrill can't afford top-dollar items.

"Anything over $500 requires a loan," he says.

At any given time, he has pieces on layaway in shops throughout the Southeast. And if acquiring an authentic pension application from a former slave, or a recording by early bluesman "Papa" Charlie Jackson means doubling up on the gas and electric bill, so be it.

"It's an impulsive thing," says Mr. Merrill, a graduate of Friends School and Loyola College. "I have no money, no space, but it's like love at first sight. I gotta have it."

Mr. Merrill is also exploring his own roots in the West Virginia panhandle where Nanny Jack was born. Whenever he has a day or two to spare, he heads for his ancestral home to pore through birth and death records, interview citizens, and plumb local libraries for any information that sheds light on his family history.

A man with a friendly, talkative manner, Mr. Merrill has carefully contoured his research and bargaining skills to match those of his sources.

They are such people as collector Lucille Ballard, whom he met after responding to her classified ad.

Financial difficulties have forced Ms. Ballard to part with her collection of black memorabilia.

But in Mr. Merrill, she found a kindred spirit who also sees magic in slave quilts, yellowed diplomas, tintypes and rough field tools. For both of them, these objects are tangible connections to actual lives. They give flesh and blood to abstract history.

When Mr. Merrill visits Ms. Ballard's Howard County home, they engage in a ritual they know by heart.

After requisite small talk, Ms. Ballard, 49, will dangle a prized possession before Mr. Merrill. But it's too expensive, she tells him. He, however, has to have it, and so the wheeling and dealing begins.

Both players in this game know that the hunt is as important as the prey. As Ms. Ballard says, "It's no fun in getting something too easy."

Eventually, Mr. Merrill gets what he wants. "She would never sell me this book," Mr. Merrill says, holding up an 1881 first edition of "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass," which he now owns.

Now, he's working on Ms. Ballard's copy of a first-edition book by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Because he shares her reverence for old things, Ms. Ballard often gives Mr. Merrill a break. With each purchase comes Mr. Merrill's sacred promise: "As long as she's alive, I will never sell any of her pieces."

Mr. Merrill has found that as a serious collector, he, too, has a brave role to play in the African-American history he is chronicling. Because he is black, it is not unusual to encounter suspicious stares in tony antique shops and auction houses. But Mr. Merrill is undeterred.

"If you let race become an issue in collecting, it will stop you dead in your tracks," he says. "I don't let it bother me. I'm on a mission."


Philip Merrill's rare collection of black memorabilia will be exhibited through Feb. 28 at the Top of the World Observation Level and Museum at the World Trade Center. It is among several exhibits and presentations planned there during Black History Month. The Top of the World, on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center at 401 E. Pratt St., is open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon until 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for senior citizens and children ages 5 to 15. Children under 5 are free.

For information, call (410) 837-4515.


If you're looking for information about black history and the personalities and events that helped shape it, you might find what you're looking for in one of the stories now available from the Sun On Demand information service of The Baltimore Sun.

Each story, which has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, is $2.95 (plus tax) or or all 15 for $19.95 (plus tax). Order by calling Sun on Demand at (410) 332-6800 and asking for the article by its four-digit code.

Benjamin Banneker, 6726

A Black Congregation, 6729

Black History Tour, 6724

A Black Legend, 6748

Books on Black Baseball, 6746

The Ebenezer AME Church, 6733

Great Blacks in Wax Museum, 6744

The History of a Lynching, 6731

Rev. John Wesley Holland, 6725

Negro League, 6747

Negro Mountain, 6723

Wilma Rudolph, 6732

Sankofa Dance Theatre, 6722

Slave Letters, 6730

Words to Live By, 6728

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