Like many of Beulah Buckner's historical discoveries, this one happened by chance.
After researching some of the cemetery graves near the former Carter Bus Co. in Ellicott City, she spotted a rundown building on the south side of the intersection of Main Street and RogersAvenue. She asked one of the Carter workers if he knew what it was. For her, the reply was a clear case of understatement.
"He said, 'Oh, that was just an old colored school.' That's the way he said it," she recalled. "I said, 'What did you say?' "
What Buckner rediscovered in 1988 were the dilapidated remains of the Ellicott City Colored School, the first county school completed with public funds for educating black children. Completed in 1880, the school taught pupils in grades one through seven. Shortly after her find, she lobbied Councilman C. Vernon Gray to get it declared an historic site. That was done by the County Council in 1989.
She and her colleagues at the Central Maryland Chapter of the Afro-American Historicaland Genealogical Society plan to transform the remains into a centerfor research with an emphasis on black Americans.
What will eventually be inside the center is largely due to the efforts of Buckner. She is the project manager in charge of research of the Ellicott CityColored School Restoration Project. In the three years she has surveyed the county, Buckner, a retired research analyst for National Security Agency, has done groundbreaking analysis on the social history of blacks in Howard County.
Her decision to investigate Howard County history was initially just a diversion. A native of Canton, Ohio, who has lived in Columbia for more than 20 years, Buckner was primarily interested in tracing her family tree.
"I did my own genealogy and I ran into a snag and said, 'Well, I have to keep my hand in research and maybe through researching this stuff here, I can find a source that I can use in my own stuff,' " Buckner said.
Finding records on blacks in Howard County incomplete and fragmented at the Howard County Historical Society and Enoch Pratt Library, she set out on herown. She visited the black cemeteries and churches in the county anddeveloped her own records. Along the way, her fieldwork style of on-site investigation with casual interviews of surrounding residents allowed her to hear from heretofore untapped sources on the county's past.
"I would just go out to the church cemeteries and I copied them. And I passed a black person sitting on a porch. And I go up and introduced myself, sit on the steps and talk to them. Be there two or three hours," she said.
"I was talking to a Mrs. Maggie DeShields down at Asbury United Methodist, who is the oldest living member. And she had an old buffet and she said, 'Child, look down in that drawer and anything you want in that drawer, you can have. Because when I close my eyes, my folks are going to throw that in the trash.'
"I found the first annual of Cooksville High School that has pictures of the teachers; it has the history of the school; it has different classhistories; it has signatures of all the seniors of the first graduating class. She also had a bunch of obituaries."
Not all that Buckner adds to the center will be documents, maps or files. Through her contact with many longtime residents of Howard County, Buckner has received promises to have some furniture donated to the center.
"There's a Mr. Harriday out in Daisy. And I was interviewing him, and he had this beautiful buffet that some slave owner gave to one of his relatives. And I was admiring it because it's a very pretty piece of furniture. And about a week later, he called me and said, 'You know, Mrs. Buckner, I'm going to clean that buffet up and give it to you for your center,' " she said.
Buckner hopes that at some point in the center's existence, portions of the year can be devoted to such different communities in Howard County as Daisy, Guilford and Elkridge.
"This involves the community," she said. "This also pulls the historyof the community out of the attic and underneath the bed. And a lot of the history of Howard County blacks has been lost because your oral history is just about gone because 90-year-old folk had grandparents that were slaves."
Along with her fieldwork, Buckner has compiled primary sources on blacks in the county from slave registries, manumission records, indentured servant records, marriage records, estatesettlements that involved slaves, lynching records and census information that up to 1860 only included free blacks.
Buckner has citedapproximately 3,000 free blacks who lived in Howard County from 1776to 1850. They were farmers, artisans, carpenters and blacksmiths.
She plans to put all of the information she gathers on black churches, cemeteries and schools in a single book so that future scholars researching Howard County will not have to do the primary research she conducted.