Propelled to action by a proposal to turn the former Harriet Tubman high school into a crisis center, Howard County African-American leaders and residents are taking the first steps down a path that they hope will end with them managing the segregation-era campus as a community center.
Thirteen people - four of them alumni - have formed a coalition to lobby for the campus in southern Columbia. Tubman opened in 1948 as the county's first black high school with a 12th grade.
Residents said they had long wanted, and asked, to transform the buildings into a museum and place for neighborhood activities. But it took a proposal for a potentially long-term use of another sort to rally leaders around an organized effort.
"I really love that school, and I'm going to do what I can to fight for what I believe in," said coalition member Beverly Wilson, who graduated from Tubman in 1964 and later moved into the neighborhood.
Closed in 1965 with the advent of integration, it is the only African-American high school standing in the county. Its buildings house school system maintenance workers, Head Start classes and the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.
Grassroots is one of three nonprofits hoping to join forces at one location to form a larger, 24-hour crisis center for battered women, victims of sexual assault and people in need of shelter. They looked at the Tubman site after three other proposed parcels in the county were met with vociferous complaints about safety from the surrounding neighborhoods.
For the Tubman community, it was a call to arms. The newly formed group - the Harriet Tubman School June 20th Coalition - takes its name from the date Grassroots explained its proposal to the public.
"We need to have that building and the grounds back so it can fulfill its historic mission and purpose: educational, cultural, historical," said coalition member Ken Jennings, past president of the county alumni chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, an African-American organization.
He said the group, which intends to incorporate as a foundation, will try to persuade leaders to find alternative space for the school system's maintenance workers. Coalition members, who have yet to meet, intend to investigate maintenance costs, grant opportunities and options for winning historical site designation for the school.
County Executive James N. Robey had suggested the Tubman campus as a possibility for the 24-hour crisis center if the community supported it.
Herman Charity, Robey's chief aide, said Tuesday that he had received a letter about the Tubman coalition's plans.
"Their request will be considered," he said. "We need to sit down and have a discussion with them."
Maintenance expenses should not be a problem, said Sherman Howell, a vice president for the African American Coalition of Howard County. He is certain that people would be willing to cover the costs with donations.
"Howard County has a lot of black families with six-figure incomes," he said. "If we can get 500 families that would contribute $500 per family [annually] over a period of, say, 10 years, we could have a kitty - considering the interest - of $3 million."
Jennings said the coalition would want to reinvent the former school as a place for educational and community programs that "speak to the African-American experience" - museums, libraries, activities and meeting space. Head Start would be encouraged to stay and expand, he said.
The African Americans in Howard County Political Action Committee will make the Tubman school a key issue during its political candidates forums this year, Jennings added.
Jean F. Moon, a project manager for the crisis center coalition, said her group cannot afford to remove any sites from consideration but is continuing to look for other options.
The nonprofits offered to share space at Tubman with the community once they learned they were not the first ones in line.
"You have to respect the feelings of those who want to preserve the building and its history," she said yesterday. "Right now, the position that we're in is that we feel very strongly that we need to communicate that the three agencies really honor the memory of Harriet Tubman. She's a natural heroine for what they do."