Exhibit explores Lincoln University’s heritage and global impact
By Steven Hoffman
Philip J. Merrill, a historian, writer, appraiser, and African American history consultant, is leading an effort to research Lincoln University’s heritage and legacy—as well as its strong connection to Old West Baltimore, an historic neighborhood in Maryland that produced Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and many other influential citizens. An upcoming exhibit of some of the treasures uncovered during the research will be on display at Lincoln University’s International Cultural Center from May 11 to 18.
Merrill explained that there is a long tradition of people growing up in Old West Baltimore and attending college at Lincoln University, which was the country's first historically black college when it was founded as Ashmun Institute in 1854. Lincoln University and Old West Baltimore both have historical significance. The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Lincoln University as a national treasure in 2015. Old West Baltimore is comprised of 175 city blocks, and is the largest urban African American historic district in the country.
“I just connected the two,” Merrill said, explaining that his heritage project is titled “Treasure to Treasure: Old West Baltimore-Lincoln University Connections” because the school in Pennsylvania and the neighborhood in Maryland are both treasures.
One of the most distinguished Lincoln University students to come from Old West Baltimore is Marshall, who was an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991. He was the first African-American justice.
Merrill, who grew up in the Old West Baltimore area, said that Marshall would have seen many good role models in that community, and some of the best young minds in the area would have aspired to go to Lincoln University. Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., is another person of distinction who grew up in Old West Baltimore and went on to study at Lincoln University. He was known as the 101st Senator, and helped to get civil rights legislation approved in the 1960s.
Warner T. McGuinn spent part of his childhood in Old West Baltimore and went on to study at Lincoln University, graduating in 1884. He studied law at Howard and graduated from Yale Law School in 1887. He became a lawyer and developed a friendship with Mark Twain.
Merrill said that he could name 40 more influential people—doctors and lawyers and civil rights leaders—who have gone from the Old West Baltimore neighborhood to Lincoln University, which illustrates the school's lofty position. Merrill noted that many of Lincoln University's founders had attended Princeton University, and during the early years Lincoln University's curriculum was similar to Princeton's.
Merrill graduated from Loyola University in 1985 and founded Nanny Jack & Company, an archives and consulting agency that specializes in projects that use oral history, memorabilia, and research to spotlight the African-American experience. In 1996, he became an appraiser with the PBS television program, “Antiques Roadshow.” He created the category for black memorabilia for “Antiques Roadshow,” and he worked on the program for five years. He is currently on a show called “Chesapeake Collectibles.” As an African-American history consultant, he works on various projects simultaneously, but Pennsylvania’s proximity to Maryland makes the state a focal point for his research.
“We work all around the country,” he explained. “We are always researching African-American history in Pennsylvania.”
Merrill attends auctions and flea markets and searches websites like eBay for memorabilia and artifacts that are relevant to his research. One recent find that he is excited about is a ledger from Cope and Sons, a company that many Oxford area residents did business with in the 1870s. Many influential people were listed in the 200 pages of the ledger.
A goal of the research, Merrill said, is to make current students, alumni, and the community aware of the history, heritage, and impact of Lincoln University.
“We want Lincoln University students to understand that they are at a place with significant history,” Merrill said.
Several current Lincoln University students, including Nafeece Beeks, Talia Best, Bahijah Hasan, and Bianca Woodward have worked on the research project about the school's heritage and legacy through internships that were coordinated through the Lincoln University Heritage Center. Veronica Carr, created a DVD for the project.
Merrill said that students will be delivering a presentation at a conference in Richmond, Virginia in October. The theme will be Hallowed Grounds, Sacred Sites of African American Memories.
In the future, Merrill said, he could see other Treasure to Treasure research projects that would focus on the pipeline from Philadelphia to Lincoln University, from Chicago to Lincoln University, or from any number of foreign countries to Lincoln University.
Merrill said that he hopes the work will help reveal Lincoln University's importance as an educational institution, as well as shine a spotlight on some of the contributions that its students have made.
He explained that three lawyers who took part in the arguments for Brown vs. Board of Education in front of the U.S. Supreme Court had ties to Lincoln University. Two other graduates of the school went on to become presidents of foreign countries. Langston Hughes, a well-known poet, is also a graduate of Lincoln University.
“When we talk about Lincoln University's far-reaching impact, it really is global,” Merrill said. “Lincoln University is part of the American landscape.”