For decades, Philip J. Merrill dug deep into microfilm and other items at libraries and local colleges to access the archives of the AFRO American newspaper.
As the CEO of Nanny Jack & Company, an African American heritage consulting firm, Merrill is always researching and fell in love in particular with the Old West Baltimore neighborhoods. The archives of the newspaper, the longest-running Black family-owned newspaper in the country, has informed a lot of his work.
“You really cannot do any research on Black Baltimore from the 1890s until today without digging into some aspect of the AFRO archives,” said Merrill, a Baltimore native.
AFRO Charities, the nonprofit that cares for the newspaper’s archives, wants to make the collection more accessible to people like Merrill, and even those who aren’t professional researchers.
It is raising money to renovate the Upton Mansion in West Baltimore, one of the last Greek Revival country houses in the city, to house millions of photographs, thousands of letters and rare audio recordings that chronicle life from the perspective of African Americans. The building will also become the headquarters of the nonprofit and AFRO newspaper.
Currently, AFRO Charities has an agreement with the Maryland State Archives to store the majority of their collection in one of their facilities, said Savannah Wood, executive director for AFRO Charities. Some is stored at its current offices.
The hope is that having the collection under one roof at the Upton Mansion will encourage people from all walks of life to research Black history.
“It’s [the archives are] really an invaluable resource for not only scholars, but just for everyday people who are curious about their own lineage, their own neighborhoods,” Wood said.
The project is expected to cost $12.3 million and AFRO Charities has about $3.9 million raised, according to Wood. They’d like to break ground this year, she said, and construction will take about a year to complete.
The Upton Mansion was built in 1838 as the country residence for David Stewart, a Baltimore attorney and politician. Throughout the 20th century, the mansion changed ownership and uses. It was the headquarters for radio station WCAO, a music school for Black students and eventually a public school.
The property has been vacant since 2006 and the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development gave development rights to the AFRO and AFRO Charities in 2020. The city agreed to sell the property for $221,855, though it was appraised for $300,000. The hope is that the renovation and construction will eliminate blight and increase economic development and real estate tax revenues, said Tammy D. Hawley, chief of strategic communications with the department.
At least 1,500 boxes are filled will items from the collection, including 3 million photographs, Wood said. There are also items like award plaques issued to the AFRO , etched, metal plates once used for printing the newspaper and old notebooks from reporters.
AFRO Charities has been building new programming as well, including a digitization preparation fellowship. The fellowship will help the nonprofit recruit and introduce people to the field of archiving as they prepare items to be digitized.
The entire lower level of the Upton Mansion, a two-story brick building in the 800 block of West Lanvale Street, will be dedicated to the archives. It will include a lecture hall, reading room, archival processing lab and a digitization lab. A goal, Wood said, is to add an annex to the rear of the mansion as the main place for the archives and house a gallery and possibly a kitchen.
At the top of the mansion, there are plans for a green roof for lounging and scenic views. The mansion sits atop one of the highest elevations in Baltimore, about 150 feet above sea level, according to National Register of Historic Places documents. A carriage house adjacent to the mansion will be turned into a community room for neighborhood meetings. Space will also be available for lease.
The move is a homecoming of sorts, since one of the AFRO’s original offices was on N. Carey Street in West Baltimore.
“To have the paper headquarters in West Baltimore is to me a no-brainer. [They’re] going back to their roots, going back to their beginnings,” Merrill said.
Old West Baltimore is a national historic district and Upton is one of Baltimore’s earliest African American middle-class neighborhoods. The district’s history is rich with stories of significant Black leaders active in the civil rights movement. Several lived or worked in the area, including: Lillie Carroll Jackson, longtime president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP; Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice; and former AFRO publisher Carl Murphy.
The AFRO’s coverage spanned beyond Baltimore, and their collection reflects that. A March 1961 article included a transcribed interview with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from the television program “The Mike Wallace Interview.” Another article featured the sad story of a young woman who became a wife, mother and then, sadly, a widow within the same year after her husband was killed in Vietnam in 1968.
While many clippings of the AFRO can be found online through the Enoch Pratt Free Library, there are photographs, letters and other items that aren’t, but will be accessible at the mansion.
For now, the mansion is boarded-up with overgrown, dead plants hanging from the fencing. A strip of vacant rowhomes sits across the street.
Wanda G. Best, executive director of the Upton Planning Committee, hopes Upton will become a destination area because of its African American history. Other projects in the area include renovating the rowhouses across the street from the mansion and enhancing the green space in the neighborhood.
Public School No. 103, the school Marshall attended, is being turned into a cultural center called the Justice Thurgood Marshall Amenity Center. Less than a mile away from the mansion, the historic Harriet Beecher Stowe School is being renovated to house the Natural Dye Initiative, which works to create a natural dye ecosystem. Indigo will be grown in Upton in an initiative led by the Maryland Institute College of Art.