School is ready for new lessons

Tours of old Colored Schoolhouse teach a new generation about history

September 17, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Owen "Hankie" Norris didn't learn the history behind his childhood home in Sykesville until he was 10 or 11 years old.

The weathered wood house off Oklahoma Road lacked electricity and running water. A fieldstone foundation surrounded a cellar with dirt floors.

But in that one-room building that sits atop a small hill overlooking the town and the south branch of the Patapsco River, black children from Carroll and Howard Counties received education for close to 35 years.

"As far as I knew, it was a regular house," Norris, 67, remembered. "But then my mother told me: my parents went to school there. I was kind of hoping that they wouldn't tear it down. They finally got enough pressure on them to save the building."

Now, more than 100 years after it first opened and 67 years after it closed to students, the restored Historic Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse reopened for alumni and residents in a dedication ceremony Friday.

Several of the school's alumni, now in their 80s, joined Norris and Sykesville officials and residents for the ceremony to dedicate the school to the teachers and students who learned within its walls.

A public open house is also scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 30, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., when visitors will be able to tour the building. Children can also participate in activities of the early 1900s.

Norris' family took over the schoolhouse when it closed in 1939. When the last Norris moved out in the mid-1970s, the building fell into disrepair.

The imperiled schoolhouse regularly faced demolition during the 1980s, but residents fought for its preservation. Eventually, Sykesville included the structure in its historic district and some renovation grants were secured.

"There's no other black school in Carroll County that's been preserved," Norris said. "This was the healthiest one in the bunch."

Gaining national treasure status in 1999 encouraged donations from local companies. By 2004, the town started renovating the building's interior.

Patricia Greenwald, a retired Howard County teacher, came on board as the schoolhouse coordinator. She's laid the foundation for field trips by school groups so visitors can see what a school day was like a century ago.

"We've just had to nickel and dime it," Greenwald said. "But it really cost the town very little compared to the half-a-million Howard County spent on restoring the Pfeiffer [Corner School in Elkridge]."

Items still on Greenwald's wish list for the school: an authentic pot-bellied stove, a coal scuttle, oil lamps and reflectors, an enamel bucket and dipper for water.

Greenwald, who has decorated the original pine-floored room with donated and bargain period pieces, said she would love to frame and hang some original report cards and certificates on the walls.

A 46-star American flag is pinned to the freshly painted walls.

A regulator clock tic-tocks next to the slate blackboard, though the Colored Schoolhouse had no clock back then. The sun kept time for the students.

A new bathroom with a flush toilet in the back of the rooms bears a sign, "The Anachronism." The school's students used an outhouse. But that wasn't feasible for today's school groups, Greenwald said.

An array of early 20th-century toys will occupy children during field trips, including an abacus and a globe, marbles and jacks and jump ropes.

Boys at the Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse tended a garden on the grounds and brought the harvest home to their families. An apple and walnut tree still stand outside. Greenwald envisions local students reviving an organic vegetable garden there.

The "colored" name is a bit troubling, Greenwald said, especially for students used to the labels "black" and "African-American." But the school's alumni wouldn't have it any other way.

"They said, `You have to keep the name,'" Greenwald said. "That was the name, and we want our kids to know that."

Norris agrees.

"That's what it was when we lived there," he said. "A colored neighborhood, a colored school. They keep changing the name of the race, but it still goes back to the same people."

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