Historic school in Howard awaits preservation aid

Building would be museum teaching of segregation era

January 13, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After years of delays, Howard County officials hope to see reconstruction start this summer on the segregation-era one-room schoolhouse known as the Ellicott City Colored School.

Envisioned as a monument to the past struggles of African-Americans relegated to second-class citizenship and a living, teaching museum for the present, the tattered wooden structure sitting on a hillside above Ellicott City's Main Street has awaited oft-predicted rescue since the county bought the site in 1995.

"This is a fragile building on a fragile site, and there are three levels of government involved," said Ken Alban Jr., capital budget expert at the county's Department of Recreation and Parks who has been supervising the effort.

He said a series of technical concerns about historical accuracy, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and the site itself have caused delays.

Howard's Senate delegation chairman, Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican who represents Ellicott City, said he has suggested that the county appoint a citizens advisory committee to oversee the restoration and plan activities at the school once it is rebuilt.

The long delays in starting work have dismayed him. "I'm certainly frustrated. We need to have a champion for this," McCabe said.

The building dates from the late 19th century and was one of several like it around the lightly populated rural county serving a scattered but substantial black community. In 1950, Howard's population was 23,119 - less than one-tenth the current tally - and blacks made up 17 percent of the total. In every public aspect of life, they lived a parallel but secondary existence to the white families that controlled the county government and education purse-strings.

"We used to get those old books from white schools - they were tattered," Dorothy L. Moore, executive director of the Howard County's Community Action Council, recalled some months ago. "A white man would bring those books in boxes. He was so happy - like `Here, I brought you something,'" she said.

Moore, who grew up in Highland, south of Clarksville along Route 108, used to walk to school while white children were bused along the same road. In the 1940s, blacks were bused to high school in the western county in Cooksville, passing closer schools for white children. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 ruling declaring segregation unconstitutional, Howard County wasn't fully rid of the system until 1965.

County natives who experienced those segregated schools still remember vividly the years-long fight to get a new high school, which opened in 1949 and was named for the black heroine Harriet Tubman. The building, which still sits next to Atholton High School, is now used partly for Head Start classes.

There was no high school available for blacks until the late 1930s. Teachers in the segregated black schools had to take streetcars to Ellicott City from Baltimore, the only place they could find housing. And the older children maintained the building, starting the coal stove fire each morning and keeping the outdoor latrines clean.

But what first seemed to be a simple restoration of a one-room building has turned out to be anything but simple, as federal, state and county government requirements must be met by a group of volunteers led by Sylvia Cooke Martin's African-American Genealogical Society.

And everyone is eager to get every detail right, Alban said.

"Nobody could produce a lot of photographs of this building," Alban said, and the county has hired historians and interviewed students who attended the school to try to determine "where the wood stove was, if the chimney was ever moved and what the pitch of the roof was."

The school closed in 1953, and the Hudson-Tiber stream below it has eroded part of the hillside it sits on. The county spent $40,000 stabilizing the building in 1998. Work on a $440,000 retaining wall between the stream bed and the school to prevent further erosion is expected to begin next month.

State and county governments each have contributed $206,000 toward reconstruction of the building.

Once the Maryland Historical Trust approves the plans, Alban said, the county's Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits must give final approval. Then the state Board of Public Works will have to approve the construction contract. Historical trust officials met yesterday with the county and Cooke Martin at the site.

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