Tattered school to become museum

Site will be monument to black communities

April 11, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Like an apparition from another time, the fragile, wooden 119-year-old Ellicott City Colored School hides in plain sight.

A symbol of Jim Crow days in rural Howard County, the unpainted building blends into a steep hillside behind a slender screen of trees above Main Street, ignored by hundreds of motorists who pass it daily.

The two-room schoolhouse, closed since 1953 and propped up with steel beams, will be preserved as a museum to that era, when small, isolated black communities throughout the county sent their children to similar buildings from Elkridge to Highland to Cooksville.

After years of delays, advocates and county officials are working to get the project under way this year. Stabilization of stream banks below the precariously balanced building is scheduled for June, and work is under way to finalize restoration plans for the building.

"We see it as a research center -- a way to help people become involved in research about the African-American community in Howard County," said Sylvia Cooke Martin, who with Beulah Buckner heads the African-American Genealogical Society's effort to restore the building, aided by $412,000 in public money and the county's expertise.

But the project is more than that, others say.

"It's to celebrate our progress and remind us of our past, so we don't repeat it -- to keep before us the fact that we have got to work collectively, Euro- and African-Americans, to overcome racism in America," said the Rev. Robert A. Turner, president of the African-American Coalition of Howard County.

Those years of separation live in the memories of those who worked and attended school in these buildings, like the youths who grew up in Ellicott City's tiny black enclave on Fels Lane, off Main Street. While their parents cleaned and cooked for white families and businesses nearby, they learned to read and write under the watchful eyes of teachers who commuted from Baltimore or Catonsville, where they could find housing.

At the start of each day, the oldest boys among the 35 to 40 students fired up the pot-bellied stoves that warmed the building, and pumped water from the outdoor well for the day.

"There weren't any white kids on Fels Lane. We didn't mix. We just went in and did what we had to do," said Earline Brown Houston, 70, who attended Ellicott City's school for blacks in the 1930s, as did her husband, James, 72.

The Houstons of Westview, like other black students and teachers from that era, recall owning next to nothing, but having strong support and a warm feeling of caring from a tightly woven community that included family, church and teachers.

"For the most part, we were happy children. We didn't know how underprivileged we were," said Dorothy L. Moore, executive director of Howard County's Community Action Council, about her early years in Highland's isolated, insular, tiny black community.

"We used to get those old books from white schools -- they were tattered," Moore recalled. "A white man would bring those books in boxes. He was so happy -- like, `Here, I brought you something,' " she scoffed.

`Palace in storybooks'

At age 10, Moore sometimes helped her grandfather, a janitor, clean the brick school for whites on Route 108 in nearby Clarksville, now the county's Gateway school.

"It almost looked like a palace in storybooks -- what we'd read about," she said, compared with her school, which was a duplicate of the one in Ellicott City.

The only time she saw white children, she said, was when their school bus passed by the blacks walking to class, and a rider occasionally shouted an insult or spit from the window, she said.

The county population was small. By 1950, it was 23,119 -- one-tenth of today's -- and blacks were 17 percent of the total, compared with 11.8 percent today.

Howard County had no high school for blacks until several upper grades were added to Cooksville Elementary School in Glenelg in the late 1930s. Blacks from Elkridge were bused past three white high schools to get to the Glenelg location, where the first two students graduated in 1939.

Standing up for rights

Not everyone took second-class status for blacks without a fight. The late Silas E. Craft Sr., principal of Cooksville High School in 1944 and later Harriet Tubman High School, fought the system relentlessly, former students, teachers and his widow, Dorothye, said.

" `Don't bring one box of those books into this school,' " she said her husband told a shocked white deliveryman about the used texts he brought. The persistent defiance and quiet, unrelenting advocacy worked. "He got new books," she said, and added more academic classes to Cooksville High's vocational and agricultural courses.

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