A plea to repair Howard slave site

In Columbia, call to save dilapidated quarters gets a mixed response

November 23, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The vine-covered ruins of a small stone building believed to be the oldest surviving slave quarters in Howard County sit off a gravel road in northern Columbia, in dire condition.

The Woodlawn slave quarters -- which is on Preservation Howard County's list of the 10 most endangered historical sites in the county -- has no roof; its walls threaten to tumble down; and trash has begun to pile up inside the building.

"At some point in time, it just became [overcome with] ... junk," said Chick Rhodehamel, the Columbia Association's vice president for open-space management, pointing to the building's interior.

The site is estimated to date to the early 1700s and is owned by the Columbia Association, which cleared the vines last year, only to have them overwhelm the structure again. Preservation Howard County is trying to persuade the Columbia Council to preserve the site.

"We've done a good job of saving our mansions, and we've done a pretty poor job of saving some of our smaller buildings ... the mills and factories and barns and slave quarters," said Mary Catherine Cochran, former president of Preservation Howard County, a nonprofit organization. "And those are the things that really give us a complete picture of history."

But that plea has drawn a mixed response. While some on the council and in the community see the value of saving the slave quarters, others oppose spending money on the project in a time of tight budgets and rising taxes.

The association staff is studying how much it would cost to stabilize the structure, which Cochran said is the first priority because of safety risks.

"Right now, it's a huge liability. It's an accident waiting to happen," she said. "It's not a matter of should [the Columbia Association] spend money on that property; they're going to have to spend money on that property."

The building is adjacent to Woodlawn Manor, a mid-1800s two-story stuccoed stone house, and it is thought to have been owned by the Dorsey family, according to Preservation Howard County. The Dorseys, who came to the area in the late 1600s, were major property owners in the county and the source of the name for Columbia's Dorsey's Search village. The family's home, Dorsey Hall, more than 250 years old, was renovated in 2001 as Historic Ellicott City's Decorator Show House.

The slave quarters is unique because it was made of stone, allowing it to withstand years of wear instead of deteriorating like wooden structures, said Wylene Burch, founder and executive director of Howard County Center of African American Culture.

"The masters that had that home were able to give their slaves a better place to live because of the stone," she said. "Whereas the other ones, the log cabins, weren't as strong as the stone ones were."

Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said the Columbia Association has a responsibility to maintain the site so people don't forget "the negative things that occurred in this country."

"It's a reminder of something that we don't ever want to go back to," he said. "It's also important in that it educates kids -- not only our kids, but young adults too -- of what has occurred in the country and where progress has been made."

Cochran told the council this month that the building has the potential to be turned into an archaeological park that students from Howard Community College or high schools could use as a base for digs. She said a house on the property, believed to have been built in the 1940s, could be renovated into a work space or museum.

"This is a stone slave quarters; this is very significant," Cochran said. "The archaeological possibilities are tremendous."

But Rhodehamel said the structure must be stabilized before anything like that could happen.

"You wouldn't go into something like that when it's in this condition without knowing that the walls are not going to fall down on you," he said.

Cochran conceded that although Preservation Howard County wants the site to be saved, it is up to the Columbia Association.

"It's your property, and you need to take care or it," Cochran told the council. "We can't do it for you."

Some of the council members agreed with Cochran's sentiments. Vice Chairman Joshua Feldmark said that although it is easy to overlook historical preservation matters in times of fiscal constraint, a generation of county residents would lose a historically significant site if the area is not preserved.

"If this building falls down while I'm on this [council], I'm going to have a hard time sleeping at night," he said.

But the organization's presentation to the council was met with trepidation by other members and hostility from some residents.

Councilman David Hlass of Long Reach repeatedly questioned Cochran about how the site could belong to the Columbia Association because it is in an area that he considers Ellicott City. He said he could not support "pumping more money" into the site.

When Cochran told Hlass that she had supplied the sufficient ownership information -- through tax records -- to him and that it was the council's responsibility to confirm the details, resident Tom Scott of Wilde Lake yelled, "No."

Meanwhile, resident David Glass of Long Reach uttered profanity-laden sentences in the back of the council's meeting room, loud enough for much of the audience to hear, disgusted that the homeowners association would spend money on preserving a historic site.

Some "council members and the audience members were being downright rude," Feldmark said.

Cochran said she was confused at the hostile response. She attended the meeting at the invitation of Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown to inform the council about the needed restoration.

"I guess it caught some of them by surprise because they weren't aware that they owned that property," Cochran said.

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