Tubman graduates recall school family

Reunion: Alumni of segregated Howard school marvel: "Not having things, we still did well."

July 21, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

When the doors opened, everyone cheered.

The original 53-year-old brown floor tiles. The dark-green lockers. The same bathrooms, even.

The high school where Howard County sent its African-American students when segregation ruled looked much the same yesterday, when the men and women who graduated a half-century ago returned for an emotional reunion open to all.

Harriet Tubman High School could easily be a bitter symbol of oppression and inequality. Instead, the red-brick building on Freetown Road is beloved - a symbol of succeeding against the odds.

"From this little school, big things came," said Victor D. Carter, who graduated in 1960 and married a fellow student. "Not having things, we still did well."

By chance, the celebration comes on the heels of an announcement that throws the former school's future use into doubt. A coalition of nonprofit groups is eyeing it as the site of a much-needed crisis center, horrifying alumni who have long waited to turn Tubman back into the center of community it once was.

They've re-energized their efforts to reclaim the former school. But yesterday was a time for reclaiming their aging community - on the grounds of the only black high school still standing in Howard County.

Walking around to the front door just after noon, a group of about 25 spontaneously broke into the school song:

Harriet Tubman, Harriet Tubman, we love to dream of you. Harriet Tubman, Harriet Tubman, you're the model of a school.

Closed in 1965, when students integrated white schools, Tubman's main building now houses Head Start classes and school system maintenance staff. Two-by-fours lean up against hallway walls. Equipment fills the gym.

But, oh, the memories this building can still evoke.

"Mr. Gibson's room was right over there!" exclaimed Columbia resident Dorothy Moore, remembering the science classes with a man who expected much and got it.

"Mr. Craft's office," said 1952 graduate Raymond E. Fields Sr., 68, chuckling as he peeked into the cramped space that once belonged to the principal. "That's the place I went a whole lot of times."

The Rev. Douglas Sands, who also graduated in 1952, stepped into the boys' bathroom and grinned. "Here's where Mr. Craft taught his first class," he reminded everyone: "`C'mon in here, let me show you how to flush the toilets, how to use the showers.'"

Silas E. Craft Sr. knew the lesson was needed. Tubman's predecessor, Cooksville High School, had no indoor plumbing. It also had no gym, no school bell, no sports fields. Eleven grades of classes doubled up in a half-dozen rooms.

Tubman - opened after years of lobbying - wasn't equal to what the white kids had. But it was by far the nicest building Howard County ever built for black students. The 23-student Class of 1952 spent time at Cooksville, so they know.

"We thought this was the biggest place in the world," said Sands, walking out of Tubman and shaking his head.

That it wasn't integrated still rankles. Instead, the Board of Education built Atholton High School next door, on land that was later surrounded by the Columbia village of Hickory Ridge.

"That was a disgrace," said Wylene Burch, executive director of the Howard County Center of African-American Culture, who brought a collection of Tubman yearbooks to the reunion. "Why couldn't they enlarge and remodel this school?"

"The original intent was to show disrespect and disregard for the educational effort that had been made there," Sands said. "That is the effect that I think is still being felt by the community."

Catherine Williams, 53, started at Tubman in 1964 before integrating Howard High School, and she was sorry to go. At Tubman, the teachers were second parents. At Howard, she was threatened with suspension for complaining when a teacher used a racial epithet.

But she's back at Tubman now, keeping the building clean for the Board of Education.

The 53-year-old tiles sparkle. "We loved this school," she said.

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