'The only Negro banker in Maryland'

Baltimore Glimpses

January 25, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

IN June 1936, The Evening Sun published a "Who's Who Among Negroes in Baltimore." One of the prominent names in the section was Harry O'Neill Wilson Sr., who was said to employ 78 people. "The only Negro banker in Maryland," the paper said, "he is regarded as a very wealthy man."

Wilson had to scramble to make it in Baltimore. Born in 1873, the son of the first black principal in the city school system, he worked as a shoemaker until 1903, when he founded the Mutual Benefit Society, an insurance company with an office at Fayette and Pearl streets.

The insurance company prospered and was ultimately sold to the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Co. Wilson used the proceeds from that sale to found Wilson's Bank at Franklin and Eutaw streets.

He lent the developers of the Southern Hotel the money they needed to build, but the irony was that Wilson couldn't stay at the hotel his bank had financed. The story goes that he attempted it once and was told to go around to the servants' entrance.

Another story, verified by William H. Murphy, a retired District Court judge who knew the Wilson family, is that Wilson refused to close his bank in March 1933, when President Roosevelt ordered a national bank "holiday" to stave off a run on accounts. Apparently, Wilson's bank had plenty of money; every dollar requested by depositors was paid out.

In the course of amassing his fortune, Wilson developed the lifestyle of a rich man. In the 1920s, he bought 1,000 acres at the corner of Cold Spring Lane and The Alameda. He built himself a mansion and an elite community for the wealthiest of Baltimore's African-American families. As he had with his bank, he named the development for himself: Wilson Park.

Baltimore-born entertainer Cab Calloway, in his autobiography, recalled, "The year and a half we lived in Wilson Park was like an interlude. It was good for me because it got me out of the city and into an environment where there were very few temptations. The kids who lived in Wilson Park had their own baseballs and bats. While we lived in Wilson Park, I started going to church again."

Late in his life, Wilson became a philanthropist. He counted among his close friends a number of whites in high places, including Gov. Harry W. Nice. He served on the prestigious Oppenheimer Commission assigned to study the People's Court and to recommend legislation to reform that institution.

Wilson died Feb. 1, 1939, at 4423 Craddock Ave. He lived and died in a world about which the city's white majority knew almost nothing.

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