William H. Merrit was first found in the Toledo area as being enumerated on the 1850 census at a local Inn in Lucas County, in the townshp of Waynesfield, Ohio in a business run by William Kingsbury. He was listed as a Barber and was 31 years old. On the 1860 census he owned property in Sylvania valued at $3,500, which was the most valuable property owned by a black man in the Toledo area in 1860. In his personal estate he held $500. William, in 1860, lived with his wife Elizabeth Merritt who was born in Ohio.
A review of early Lucas County marriage records showed that William H. Merritt Jr. was listed as marrying Elizabeth J. Ockray on July 24, 1851 and the marriage was performed by I. A. Newton in Lucas County.
Though it is difficult to piece together Mr. Merritt’s life from the small amount of resources available, perusing these records and various publications has shown that Mr. Merritt was an esteemed colored citizen of Lucas County and the City of Toledo. Mr. Merritt’s occupation was listed throughout the years (from 1850-1870) as a Barber, Hairdresser, and Wig Maker and during those decades he also housed other black/colored citizens of Toledo and Lucas County at his home and business address. Some businesses that were housed in his commercial location of 59 Summit Street, include the early photography studio of George Fields, Toledo’s first professional black photographer. Mr. Merritt also housed many young men and women who would go on to open their own businesses including various Barbers and Seamstresses/Dress Makers.
Due to a lack of available information, I could not solidly find anything regarding Mr. Merritt’s life prior to him moving to Northwest Ohio. A review of earlier census records was performed in order to check to see if any free black man named William Merritt may have been listed in Virginia. Since Mr. Merritt, per the marriage record on file in early Lucas County records stated he was WH Merritt Jr., it can be assumed that his father was William H Merritt Sr. On the 1840 Census there was a free man of color named Wm Merritt who lived in Brunswick County, Virginia with a family of 11 other free colored persons. There was also a white male on the 1840 Census in Brunswick County named Wm HE Merritt. He had enumerated in his household one free black male in the age range of Mr. Merritt of Toledo. He also had white family members and 6 slaves enumerated on the 1840 Census. Wm HE Merritt was also on the 1830 Census in the same county but had no free black household members and 9 slaves.
The most interesting hit in my research of the name “William Merritt” was that there was a reference to a William Merritt living in the Great Dismal Swamp of NC and VA in a book called “Swampers, Free Blacks, and the Great Dismal Swamp” compiled and abstracted by Harriette Thorn Kent. This was a very interesting tidbit of information since I have recently been reading about the black American “Maroon” communities of America. It is suspected that the largest settlement of black American Maroons (blacks who escaped slavery or indentured servitude and formed their own communities in hostile, hard to reach land areas) was in the Great Dismal Swamp. Archaeologists have found evidence that tens of thousands of black Americans lived alongside Native Americans in the swamp between the 17th century and the end of the Civil War.
Information regarding Mr. Merritt’s life in the Toledo area was found from a local publication regarding the Underground Rail Road history of Northwest Ohio and the Lathrop House of Sylvania. It showed that Mr. Merritt was involved as one of the 47 identified black/colored citizens of NW Ohio who participated and conducted activities of the Underground Railroad. It can be assumed that some of the individuals who lived with him in the 1850s and 1860s were participants in the Underground Railroad or conductors/assistants themselves. Mr. George Tucker identified as another black Toledoan involved in the Underground Railroad was also a Barber in the city.
An article published in the Daily Toledo Blade on December 30, 1858 stated as follows:
We are advised by the receipt of the proceedings of a meeting of colored people held at their school-house in this city, recently but which are too lengthy for our space, that a resolution was passed to send a delegate to the Under Ground R.R. Convention, to be held at Columbus on the 5th and 6th of January. Agreeable to previous arrangements a mass meeting was then held on Tuesday evening last, for the election of a delegate, resulting in the choice of G.W. Tucker. The officers of the meeting were W.H. Merritt, President, and M.H. Hawkins, Secretary
The information I did find on Mr. Merritt mostly involved his activities while living in the Toledo area. As stated he was a Barber and he owned valuable land in both the City of Toledo and in Sylvania. Mr. Merritt was a target of the 1862 Toledo Race Riot (I am currently working on a post regarding this riot based on local newspaper accounts during that era). Luckily the mob was persuaded to not ransack and destroy his residence on that day in 1862. It was stated that he lived on Erie St.
The Toledo City directory from 1867 through 1878 listed Mr. Merritt as “William H Merritt” and he had some advertisements shown in the directory. He was described as a “hair dresser and wig maker” with a business location at 59 1/2 Summit St and a residence at Jefferson and Erie Street in 1867. In 1874 his residence was at 88 Superior St. Both of these locations were in the heart of what is now Downtown Toledo and commercial buildings stand today where they once stood.
Per the 1860 Census entry, the Lucas County death register showed that Mr. Merritt died on December 9, 1879.