A season of cultural change

Diversity: Years worth of effort for more books, art and history about African-Americans in the county are likely to be rewarded by summer.

April 06, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

This summer promises to be a season of change for many of Howard County's growing African and African-American cultural organizations.

If all goes as planned, the Ellicott City Colored School will get the auto and pedestrian bridges it needs to open in September. The Howard County Center of African American Culture will relocate its adult library to Howard Community College next month; and the African Art Museum of Maryland will open a new branch in Baltimore in June.

The efforts for more books, art, history that will be realized in the coming months follow years of hard work by local nonprofit groups and government agencies.

It took 11 years for community members and the county to design and reconstruct the Ellicott City Colored School. Last fall, supporters held a dedication ceremony. But the 19th-century schoolhouse, which will be a museum and resource for teaching about the African-American struggle during segregation, has not opened to the public.

Users are awaiting construction of a bridge that will allow cars to cross the Hudson-Tiber channel that runs beside the school. The auto bridge, a footbridge replicating the one students used to cross, and work on a driveway and parking lot were delayed by the harsh winter weather, said Ken Alban, administrator for capital projects with the county Department of Recreation and Parks.

The projects are under way, and, Alban said, "We are scheduled to be complete this June."

The nonprofit Friends of the Ellicott City Colored School Restored has moved its grand-opening event, originally scheduled for spring, to September.

In the meantime, the group has been adding artifacts to the school, including a potbellied stove, desks from the 1900s and children's books from 1890 through 1925, said Sylvia Cooke Martin, who organized the group. Volunteers also are compiling genealogy resources to turn part of the school site into a family research center.

"This is a project that has taken years," said Adele Air, historic sites programs coordinator for the Department of Recreation and Parks. "The elements have not always played nice."

The dilapidated remnants of the original 122-year-old building were abandoned for years, perched on an eroding hillside over a waterway, making restoration difficult.

Air said that with the completed school joining other local history sites, "We're really trying as a group, and as individuals, to start telling the real story of the people that lived here, worked here and went to school here. ... There is a lot of hope in some of these stories."

Wylene Sims Burch, director of Howard County Center of African American Culture, has been collecting books since 1963, building a library of up to 2,000 volumes on African-American art and music, African history, biographies and literature by and about African-Americans.

This month, the books for adults will find a new home - and, organizers hope, a broader audience - at Howard Community College. Materials for children will remain at the center's offices next to Oakland Manor in Columbia.

"It will have more visibility, plus the college students can use it as well as the community," Burch said. Three part-time librarians and two student librarians will oversee the collection and offer research assistance, she said. The books cannot be checked out.

"We think when people are in the library [the collection] will be hard to miss," said Ronald X. Roberson, HCC's vice president of academic affairs. The school is preparing an area for the center's books and is looking forward to the collaboration, he said.

The African Art Museum of Maryland, approaching its 24th anniversary in the fall, is also branching out. In addition to its location in historic Oakland Mills at Columbia's Town Center, it will have a new branch in the 1840s Plaza, five blocks east of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

"We don't know if we'll have a full-blown exhibit in June, but we'll have a presence there," said Doris Ligon, the museum's president and founder.

The museum, which started in Ligon's living room, now has about 2,500 works of art in its collection and exhibits items on loan from patrons.

"We're bursting at the seams, as far as storage space," Ligon said.

At its city location, the museum will be housed in three or four rowhouses within the plaza complex. In a few years, after renovations, the museum plans to move to another site in Columbia that used to be a theater. "We don't want anybody to think we're abandoning Columbia," Ligon said. She plans to continue to operate the Columbia branch with the same hours, limiting hours at the new location until enough staff can be hired for both. Ligon is the museum's only full-time employee, with two part-time employees and a number of volunteers.

"The challenge is getting them up and running continuously and successfully," Ligon said, "because the monies are not necessarily there."

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