Tubman graduates vow to keep its memory alive 40th-reunion class reclaims alma mater

July 12, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

The day Harriet Tubman High School's second graduating class celebrated its 40th reunion was the day it reclaimed its alma mater.

Nearly a dozen graduates of Howard County's only all-black high school gathered on the school's steps yesterday to put up a banner with the school's name -- reclaiming their piece of history and righting a wrong.

They say that when they were high-schoolers, the county school system was so against teaching blacks that it didn't even want to put the name on the building.

"I remember our parents fought for everything to get a brick for this building," said James Owens, 58, wiping tears from his eyes as he recalled the struggle to teach black students during the segregation period.

The school was named in honor of the black abolitionist who led the Underground Railroad to free slaves in the 1800s. Now, nowhere is there a sign to note that the building -- which houses several community organizations, as well as school system maintenance facilities -- had ever been a school.

"It may not be a high school now, but Lord, let it carry the name," said Howard Lyles, 58, as he held hands with classmates in a prayer.

The school was built in 1948 -- 35 years after its namesake died -- to replace Cooksville High, a beaten-up wooden building with a potbelly stove that stood as the county's first high school for blacks. The school shut its door to make way for integration in 1965, a year before developer James W. Rouse brought to the county his vision of Columbia, now noted for its racial and religious harmony.

To the graduates' chagrin, Atholton High opened in 1966, not more than 100 feet away, to accommodate black and white students attending school together.

"Why did they have to build another school?" asked Thelma Walker, 59, who married her high school sweetheart after graduation. "[Harriet Tubman] was a beautiful, brand new school. Just to erase it like that -- it didn't make sense."

"It had to close because white folks weren't going to go there," said James Carter, 58, a grocery store manager.

Over the years, Harriet Tubman served as headquarters for the Board of Education and office space for the schools' maintenance department.

In its heyday, though, the school was a hub -of black culture. When classes were not held, it served as a meeting hall and weekend cinema for black youths who weren't allowed to step foot in movie theaters. It was the site of dances, fairs and beauty competitions -- events that

attracted hundreds of local residents.

"Any activity they didn't have at the individual churches, they had at Harriet Tubman High School," said the Rev. Douglas Sands, leader of two Baltimore United Methodist congregations. was the center and focus for black community in the county. We no longer have any such focal point in the community."

School started at 9 a.m. Students from around the county -- Elkridge, Ellicott City and elsewhere -- trekked two miles from their homes to catch a two-hour bus ride on "Old 41 International," driven by a student. The irony was they had to pass several white schools before getting to theirs.

"You rode so long," said Mildred Burgess, 58, class president. "And it was so cold."

"We had to fight for everything we got," said retired principal Elhart Flurry. "We didn't get the things they got in the white high schools."

/# Students learned from old texts

and dealt with hand-me-down furnitures -- rubble from white schools.

"They gave us secondhand school stuff," Mr. Carter said. "The books were falling apart. I remember we had to scrape chewing gum from the desks."

Teachers did the best with what they had to build a supportive atmosphere for their students, pushing and encouraging them to learn.

"They were very inspirational," said Ms. Burgess. "They cared."

Students knew everybody by their first names. "We had such a loving group," Ms. Walker said.

Although white schools were better-equipped with teachers and textbooks, the graduates say they wouldn't have wanted to go anywhere but Harriet Tubman High.

"Our students were highly competitive, so you didn't miss anything," Mr. Sands said. "I didn't want to go to an all-white school where no one cared about me. I wanted to go where they cared."

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