Culture center travels rocky path

Rent woes adding to site's problems

Howard may give aid

May 25, 2000|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

It has been a long, hard road for the Howard County Center of African American Culture.

The center - which houses a mini-museum, art gallery, gift shop and library - has struggled over the years to increase membership and to find a permanent home.

These days, officials must scramble to pay rent for the cottage it occupies on Vantage Point Road in Columbia.

But the center may soon get a much-needed boost from county government in the form of a $25,000 grant in next year's budget. "We are really thrilled that we will receive this money," said WyleneSimsBurch, founder and executive director of the center. "It will really come in handy."

Howard County Executive James N. Robey has proposed the funding and the County Council is scheduled to vote on the measure tomorrow. Raymond S. Wacks, budget administrator for the county said the proposal is expected to pass.

"We will then enter into a contract with the center," Wacks said. "They will be required to tell us what they will be using the money for and give us updates about their progress."

The center began a dozen years ago in Burch's basement. A Columbia resident, Burch began almost 40 years ago collecting items that reflect African-American culture.

From that passion sprang the concept of creating a place where visitors could browse through local and national touchstones of the past, Burch said.

The center is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, she said.

It depends on memberships and donations to pay their expenses, Burch said.

"Many of the artifacts we now exhibit have been loaned to us," she said. "We try to highlight both African-American achievement in the county and African-American history in general."

In the crowded stone cottage on Vantage Point Road that the center shares with the Red Cross, history jockeys for its space.

Outfits belonging to some prominent Howard County African-Americans, including the first black county police officer, line a back wall near a display of historical homes and churches in the area.

A burlap sack filled with cotton rests near a phonograph and an early 1900s recording of "I Just Can't Make My Eyes Believe," sung by MissAdaJones.

The center boasts a library of over 3,000 books and rooms dedicated to African-American achievement in music, sports and the armed forces.

Burch said the center also is host of a variety of programs and is working on publishing a book about the history of the Underground Railroad in Howard.

The center's current location is the fifth home it has had in a dozen years, and Burch said the county money comes at a crucial time as it struggles to increase membership and pay the rent.

The center's monthly rent is $1,100.

"This is the most expensive rent we have ever had to pay," said Burch, who also must pay about $200 a month for utilities at the building. "We've received money before for special programs, but this is the first time the county has pitched in for our operating expenses."

Barbara Lawson, executive director of the Columbia Foundation, said the center attracts researchers as well as residents who come to take advantage of the center's incredible resources.

"They've done really quite a fabulous job," said Lawson, who has been a supporter of the center over the years.

"When you think that [Burch] started in her basement and now they have this incredible library and all of these artifacts, it's really quite remarkable," she said.

Raquel Vaughn is the center's curator and said visitors to the building usually have a profound response to the displays.

"They will come across items that are very personal to them and they do a lot of reminiscing here," said Vaughn.

Vaughn was hired six months ago as the center's first salaried employee.

"There is really an educating piece to it also. I love having someone walk out saying, `Wow, I didn't know that' after they visit."

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