Historic black schoolhouse to be reborn as museum

Rustic building served 7 grades, was `as far as we could go'

July 30, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A ramshackle, vacant school in Sykesville, one of the last surviving segregated schools for African-American children, stands as a testament to its former students, the perseverance of a town, and the foresight of the state.

State, county and local officials will gather at the Sykesville Black Schoolhouse today to celebrate its history and its future. The building is the latest addition to the Save Maryland Treasures program, a designation that could make restoration funds available and bring about a decade-long effort to renovate the nearly century-old building.

"This is a story of one of Maryland's last remaining black schoolhouses. It is of interest beyond Carroll County," said Marc Apter, spokesman for Maryland 2000, a yearlong program of events that celebrates state history as Maryland enters the next millennium.

The treasure designation "will help keep the project alive and will get it funded to be a museum for schoolchildren around the state," Apter said.

The project won a $32,000 state grant in 1996, and the town has raised about $17,000 of the required matching funds.

When the school reopens as a museum, it will be a replica of the one room where as many as 50 children in seven grades learned their elementary lessons.

"Our history is important to us, to the county, to the state and to the nation, and that school is a part of it," said state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, whose family has lived in Car- roll County since before the Civil War. "That building was for years as far as many African-Americans could go in school. There was no high school for African-Americans in this county until 1927, when they opened the Carroll County Colored High School in Westminster."

But most students from Sykesville had no transportation to that high school.

When Dixon's alma mater, Robert Moton High, opened in Westminster in 1931, the principal and a teacher cosigned a note and bought one bus. Another teacher drove it. Only then were South Carroll children of African-American heritage able to further their education.

Dixon praised the persistence and strength of the Rev. Ernest Johnson, who "had the courage to keep this school project going even when others were critical." The former pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist did much of the initial research for the project.

`Engage people in history'

Barbara Lilly, town preservation projects coordinator, says the museum will focus on the stories of those students who attended the school from 1903 until it closed in 1938. She envisions exhibits, enrichment classes and taped recollections of alumni.

"We want to engage people in history, animate it and make it relevant," said Lilly. "Children have to understand the past to move into the future."

Lilly has interviewed about 15 alumni for an oral history. Many have requested anonymity and feel the stigma of deprivation, she said.

"Others have been forthcoming and pleased to tell the story of their school days -- how they triumphed and persevered and went on to do significant things with their lives," Lilly said. "We had one alumnus tell us he used to gather berries to make his own ink."

Before the Carroll County Board of Education built the school in 1903, education for black children was haphazard, with classes held in churches and at home, she said.

Berry ink, tattered books

William Hudson, 77, who attended the one-room school, remembers using berry ink, studying tattered textbooks handed down from all-white schools, and making a caldron of soup for lunch on the same wood-fired iron stove that heated the room.

Hudson and his brothers walked miles along the railroad tracks and through dark train tunnels from his home in Gaither to attend the school.

"They had a school in Gaither near my home," Hudson said, "but that was only for white children. Black children had to go to Sykesville. What else could we do? We wanted an education."

When all the metal desks were filled, the older children did their lessons from benches along the walls. Once the original flooring is uncovered, Lilly expects to find patterns left by desks.

The school had neither plumbing or electricity. Ruth Gaither attended the school nearly 70 years ago and remembers carrying fresh spring water to the building. Every day she filled a metal bucket from which every child filled his or her cup.

Mabel Johnson traveled from Howard County every day, crossing an old metal bridge over the Patapsco River. She and Earl Norris met at the school and married years later. When the school was abandoned, the couple remade it into a four-room house. Their son, Owen "Hankie" Norris, was born there in 1939.

"One wall was a big blackboard, but my dad painted over it," said Norris. "My parents 4 Apter had a lot of memories of [the school]. I want to see it saved as a school. There is not that much black history left in this part of the county. Children growing up today should go there and see that a lot of children grew up without the opportunities of today."

Making the school into a residence probably saved it from destruction, said Eugene E. Johnson, president of the Sykesville Town Council, who lived there briefly and has done routine maintenance on the building for years.

"People wanted to tear it down," said Johnson. "I told them we couldn't lose this part of history. We could not take that away from our young people. We can talk about the stories, but we have to have this school to show them."

Pub Date: 7/30/99

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