Old school, new lesson in segregation

Restoration of site in Ellicott City nears completion

February 25, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The nearly complete restoration of the 122-year-old Colored School, perched on a newly prominent spot above Main Street in Ellicott City, represents an inspirational transformation.

A long-neglected symbol of the nation's shame - the segregated schools that provided African-American children with a second-class start in life - has become a sparkling reminder of how much things have changed.

Community leaders hope to use the restored building to teach new generations of students - and their parents - lessons from the long African-American struggle for a better life in the face of segregation.

After a decade of effort, the building will join Ellicott City's symbol of 19th-century white privilege - Patapsco Female Institute - and B&O Railroad Station Museum as a reminder of the past and a tool for teaching what daily life was like for the segment of the community oppressed by law and accepted social practice.

Gone are the dilapidated, weathered remains of the segregation-era schoolhouse that for years stood abandoned, hidden behind a screen of trees on an eroding hillside.

In its place is a newly painted, sturdy building with a shining metal roof and a stone foundation. The structure is equipped with modern utilities on a site made more visible by the removal of trees and underbrush reinforced by a new wall and a decorative black fence.

"Here we had a building on the edge of a cliff, eroding into the stream," said Clara Gouin, a park planner with Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.

"I'm somewhat amazed, too. We're getting a lot of attention from people passing by. There's just a lot of enthusiasm about the building," said Sylvia Cooke Martin, who led the project for the sponsoring African American Historical and Genealogical Society. The school was used from about 1880 until 1953, when a new segregated school was built nearby on Fels Lane. Howard County schools fully desegregated in 1965.

"It really was in service for such a long time," Gouin said. By comparison, Wilde Lake High School in Columbia was demolished and a new building built after 25 years.

When finished, the restored school building will be painted a honey-mustard yellow, with dark-green doors and shutters. Inside, the floor will be made from thick, reclaimed barn siding of varying widths, and the walls will be plaster. Original interior wainscoting has been reinstalled along the bottom of the walls.

Cooke Martin is searching for old slate blackboards, school desks from the early 20th century, old books and lessons, and a potbellied stove to re-create the scene.

"We want to have some vintage materials so when children come, they can see what school was really like," Cooke Martin said.

A few remnants have been found, including pieces of an old blackboard adorned with chalk writings from December 1885, a couple of fragments of newspapers from 1932, and several fancy metal sections from old school desks, one emblazoned with "J.H. Medairy and Co., Baltimore, Md." Jacob Henry Medairy supplied school desks and books for Baltimore-area schools from 1837 until he died in 1904, according to his great-grandson, Towson lawyer Bernard John Medairy Jr.

Gouin noted that although the hillside where the school is located posed difficulties, "the fact that [the school is] still in its original location is important. It's not an easy location."

Students brought water from the stream below each day until the 1920s, when a hand pump was installed outside.

Up to 100 children attended the school at one time, and the one-room building later was divided to separate older children from younger ones. Later, the building was used as a church before being abandoned.

Mike Logan, a county heritage conservation supervisor, said the original blackboards were actually the plaster walls darkened with lamp black or stove black and sealed with something like linseed oil. Later, a slate blackboard was installed over the original walls, hiding an old lesson.

Finding the old section of wall, part of which he removed and pressed between sheets of plywood, "was pretty cool," he said. Logan is waiting for a museum curator to look at and provide guidance about preserving the section and perhaps displaying it. The words in the lesson were not legible, he said, but the date could be seen.

The $1.5 million project has been years in the making, as the state and later county governments stepped in to help the original organizers bring it to fruition. The state provided the initial $220,000 and the county gave $40,000 in 1998 to stabilize the building. The Robey administration has added the remaining money.

As work progressed, expenses rose. Stabilizing the remaining stream bank a few feet below the old school became a much more extensive project than first envisioned, said Ken Alban Jr., the recreation department's capital projects chief.

Even after the building has been completed in about a month, work will continue until fall to grade and landscape the site, build a parking lot and replace the old concrete bridge over the stream, said Alban.

Cooke Martin and John Byrd, the county's parks bureau chief, are planning for that.

"People are volunteering to speak. Things are just happening so fast," Cooke Martin said. She's setting up a board of directors for a nonprofit group called Friends of the Ellicott City Colored School, but lots of help is needed, she said.

"We will need to buy furniture. We're looking for donations, and we'll need volunteers to put information on compact discs to access it by computers," she said, because space will be very limited. Some hope that the new museum will become part of a consortium of Ellicott City historic sites, linking with B&O Railroad Station Museum and Patapsco Female Institute, sharing volunteers and promoting each other's sites.

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