Black banker’s home pushed for historical designation
SARAH GANTZ | 7/24/2017, 2:24 a.m.
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE (AP) – Mabel O. Smith has spent decades preserving the memory of a man whose name most people in Baltimore wouldn’t recognize, but who played a significant role in its African American history.
Harry O. Wilson Sr. was a 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, even if they could afford to.
“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 this month recommended 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 traded that craft in 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 began building Wilson Park in 1917. He acquired the land from German Americans who had been unable to sell the property to White Americans because of the anti-German sentiment during World War I.