An envelope of loose seeds. A forgotten reel labeled “Thurgood Marshall.” A mysterious locked filing cabinet belonging to an influential publisher.

Plenty of such unexpected treasures and time capsules tend to accumulate within a newspaper’s headquarters over the years. The cache amassed by the longest-running Black family-owned newspaper is another matter.

Inside a sprawling, windowless warehouse at the edge of Baltimore, a team of archivists is sorting through the AFRO American newspaper chain’s vast collection of records and artifacts. The more than 130-year-old publication at one time had editions in Philadelphia, Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., documenting aspects of Black history and everyday life that never made it to the pages of historically white newspapers.

Digitized records of the AFRO’s published works are already accessible to the public with a library card. However, the physical collection — an estimated 3 million photos, clips, cartoons, event programs, letters, reporter notebooks and other artifacts — is temporarily being housed in a state-owned storage facility that is not open to the public.

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Archivist Megan McShea, who is overseeing the project, estimates her three-person team has processed just 5% of the collection since beginning work in October.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” McShea said. “What we’re trying to do is stabilize it for research.”

Archive assistant Oyinda Omoloja goes through the files containing the original artwork of cartoonist Thomas Stockett. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Afro Charities, the nonprofit that cares for the newspaper’s archives, wants to increase public access to the collection. It plans to move it to a new headquarters within a restored mansion in Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood. The restoration project has not broken ground.

With each entry in the computer, archivists are stitching together a patchwork of record-keeping systems. A stack of boxes labeled “Harriet Tubman” doesn’t necessarily contain anything about the Eastern Shore abolitionist. The collection was at one time categorized according to names of notable Marylanders. But just a few taps on the keyboard and archives assistant Oyinda Omoloja could produce answers about what the boxes contain.

Omoloja said the team occasionally fields individual research requests from the public, especially during Black History Month in February. People wishing to access the collection for research can fill out an online form from Afro Charities.

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The team recently helped a woman track down a photo of a local high school hiring a Black lacrosse coach in the 1970s. A student from Dubai asked for articles documenting how a certain presidential administration marginalized Black people. London-based filmmakers sought records on a program started by an AFRO reporter following the second World War that placed mixed-race babies from Germany with African American families.

The filmmakers’ request was the first time Omoloja had ever heard of the program, despite having enrolled in Black studies in college. The team dug up and returned to them a packet of materials.

“Everybody has a history,” publisher Frances Toni Draper said. “So often we feel disconnected from it.”

The collection is significant, Draper said, for its chronicle of African American life. And the sorting project comes at a time when some states are debating how best to teach Black history in schools.

Draper’s own family history is fused with the AFRO, which her great-grandfather, John Henry Murphy Sr., founded in 1892. A number of artifacts within the collection are associated with members of the Murphy family.

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That reel labeled “Thurgood Marshall” turned out to be a rare audio recording of a discussion between the first Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and Draper’s grandfather, Carl Murphy, concerning Brown v. Board of Education, Draper said. The landmark court case found racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.

The original front door of the AFRO American newspaper's first headquarters, which also housed the NAACP on the second floor. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Even as processing the archives is underway, the collection continues to grow. Afro Charities recently bought at auction the original front door of the newspaper’s first headquarters, which it shared with the NAACP. Both organizations’ names are legible on the glass panes. Just a few yards away in the warehouse, a drop cloth covers the face of a decommissioned Roger Brooke Taney monument in the state’s storage.

Draper has brought in items from her family to add to the archives. Staff huddled around the fourth-generation publisher Wednesday as she spread yellowing papers across a folding table: love letters exchanged by her grandparents, a signed photo of Josephine Baker and an 1889 issue of the Sunday School Helper (Carl Murphy’s first newspaper, which he later merged with the Afro-American).

Draper wants the collection to empower people to preserve their own stories. Individuals often look to the archive to fill in gaps of history.

What else remains hidden within the archive is anyone’s guess.

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Staff members are itching to open that sealed filing cabinet once owned by publisher Carl Murphy. Draper wonders if it contains a trove of letters between her grandfather and Thurgood Marshall.

Omoloja is curious about the packet of loose seeds. When the collection moves to the Upton mansion, she’s planning to tuck them into the soil nearby. Maybe they’re storing life too.

The collection, overseen by Afro Charities, includes an estimated 3 million photos, clips, cartoons, event programs, letters, reporter notebooks and other artifacts. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Correction: This story was updated to correct the number of people on archivist Megan McShea’s team and to clarify the distinction between the AFRO newspaper and Afro Charities, the nonprofit that oversees the newspaper’s archive.

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