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Joseph Merrill

Joseph Merrill was a successful businessman and philanthropist who aided in the creation of Merrill School, one of Pine Bluff’s early African American high schools, and the Merrill Institute, a community center for Pine Bluff’s youth. 

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Joseph Merrill was born around 1810 in Rockingham County, New Hampshire to William and Mary Merrill. He was the youngest of four children, two brothers and one sister. From eleven to twenty-one years old, Merrill worked as a shoemaker until he moved to Boston, Massachusetts. Soon after, he moved to Sidney, Ohio. He worked there for a few years until his health declined. In December 1835, he  moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, to deal with his health issues. From 1835 to 1847, he was the clerk at a general merchandise store that belonged to James Du Baun. In 1847, Merrill was transferred to Du Baun’s Pine Bluff store.  

On January 3, 1855, Merrill married Elizabeth Olive Harding, the daughter of early Pine Bluff settlers Dexter and Jane Allen Harding. The couple's first daughter, Mary Olive Merrill was born on June 23, 1856. Unfortunately, Harding’s wife died shortly after the birth of their second daughter on November 26, 1857. Ten days later, their unnamed infant daughter also died. On December 1, 1857, Merrill’s wife and newborn daughter were buried at Bellwood Cemetery.

By 1854, Merrill had opened his own mercantile business. He sold his business in 1860. Soon after, he then became a postmaster. He used his earnings to purchase a property after the end of the Civil War in 1865. After purchasing his property, he became a planter and by 1889, he had accumulated 900 acres of land. 

In 1886, Merrill sold a block of land containing a two-story house to the Pine Bluff School District for $4,000. Merrill also donated money to Pine Bluff’s African American community to remodel the house into a five-room schoolhouse called Greenwood School. Greenwood's school board later changed the school’s name to Merrill Public School in honor of Merrill’s generous financial contributions. Merrill School was one the four high schools that served Pine Bluff’s black students until the public schools were integrated in 1971. 

In 1939, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) restored the school's gymnasium after it burned down. During the 1980s, the school building was converted into the general office for the Jefferson Comprehensive Care System’s Head Start Program.  

On May 27, 1890, Merrill opened the Merrill Institute, a community center with a library, swimming pool, gymnasium, lecture hall, and a number of other rooms geared at improving the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of Pine Bluff’s youth. The Merrill Institute also became the first home of Pine Bluff’s Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). On March 11, 1937, the City Park Commission completed its remodel of the building, which included covering the intact swimming pool with a bowling alley. 

On July 22, 1890, at the age of eighty, Merrill died in Springfield, Ohio at the home of one of his relatives. His body was shipped back home to Pine Bluff so that his funeral could be held at the Merrill Institute. Merrill’s funeral was Pine Bluff’s second largest funeral procession in living memory as so many of the people impacted by his generosity showed up to pay their respects. 

Merrill left behind a trust fund worth $175,000 to the Merrill Institute. The funds were put to great use to assist the Boys Club, Boys Club, and the YMCA.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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