The viewers stand transfixed, leaning in again and again for a closer look as they inspect 32 panels of photographs that capture both the everyday and the celebratory moments in the lives of Howard County's early black families. Many pull out their cellphones and snap a shot of a relative or someone they know.
The exhibit they scrutinize illustrates the tightly interwoven stories of African-Americans who settled in the county from the late 19th century to the mid-1900s, some as many as 90 years before Columbia had even begun to appear.
"It's a lovely, large reunion of all of our families," said Wylene Burch, founder and director of the Howard County Center of African American Culture, which has mounted "A Pictorial Exhibit of Native African-American Families of Howard County, Maryland: 1875-1950" at The Mall in Columbia.
The display will move Feb. 19 from Center Court in the mall to the James Clark Jr. Library Hall at Howard Community College for the rest of Black History Month. It features close to 400 reproductions of personal photos, mostly undated, contributed by families from Clarksville to West Friendship and 14 other towns.
Photographs range from individual portraits to group shots of parents with a dozen children; older ones are black-and-white or sepia-toned, others are in color. There's a portrait of the county's first African-American judge, James H. Taylor of Elkridge, and next to that a photo of his brother, Milton S. Taylor, the county's first African-American state trooper.
Scattered among the photos are illustrations of family trees, newspaper clippings, and other items that document and celebrate black life at home, at work and in worship.
Hundreds of people have viewed the exhibit since it opened Feb. 1, said Burch. She noted this year is the 25th anniversary of the center, whose museum has a collection of 21,000 objects. The nonprofit organization of 130 members also operates a research library and archive at the community college, where more than 9,000 books, periodicals and journals are housed.
Burch, a New Orleans native and military wife who lived in 22 places in 30 years before coming to Columbia, didn't arrive here until 1979. One of her first observations, she said, was that no one was keeping a proper account of the county's black history.
After drumming up interest in preservation efforts, she founded the center in 1987. It moved around to five locations before landing a decade later in a permanent home on Vantage Point Road in Columbia's Town Center. Burch began soliciting photographs from families in person and by mail in 2005.
One aspect of the display that will likely catch many viewers off-guard is the number of light-skinned black people represented in the photos, she said.
"People will be surprised when they see how many marriages were interracial back then," Burch said. "But that didn't seem to be that much of an issue" within the black community.
Joseph Mendez, a longtime center volunteer, agreed, saying any alarm over interracial relationships "was more from a white perspective. … But then again, they just frowned on us as a whole."
Harriet Tubman High School, which opened in 1949 as the county's first African-American secondary school, is represented in the display.
Sylvia Carter, a Tubman graduate and daughter of Carter Bus Co. founder Roger Carter, dropped by Monday to view the exhibit. The bus company was closed in the mid-1990s, she said, about 10 years after the 1984 death of the man who had carried on the Carter family penchant for entrepreneurship in Guilford and for whom the county's Ellicott City recreation center is named.
The exhibit "brought back wonderful memories" of her family and her alma mater, she said.
"We all went to Tubman and so we all knew each other," said Carter, a Columbia resident who was a member of the Class of 1957.
"The school was just a core of strength, but we didn't realize that at the time," she said. "You had to come back to it after being away to know how special it was. We basically received a private-school education in a public school."
Carter said everyone credited Principal Silas Craft with the school's success.
"He knew each one of us and where we should go to college," Carter said of Craft, for whom an HCC scholarship program is named. "Little did we know that everyone didn't have that same kind of experience in school. He was devoted to us, and the teachers were wonderful."
Sherise Noel, whose family emigrated from Trinidad to Glenwood, said she stumbled upon the display while shopping and was impressed as a first-generation American by the respect it pays to black county residents.
"I had no idea that African-American families had been here so long," said Noel, who is 29 and lives out of state. "This is so beautiful, and I plan to tell my family to come see this."
Burch said people have driven in from nearby states to view the exhibit, and she added that it's attracting attention from people of all races.
"A lot of white visitors have stopped by and recognized people," she said. "They are praising us for having these photos on display."
Ionnie Butler, another of the center's volunteers, called the exhibit "a great find."
"My great-great-grandmother was a slave who married a Confederate soldier, and we [descendants] came out in all kinds of colors," said the Columbia resident.
"It's wonderful to watch young people as they locate their grandmother or their great-great-grandfather" in the display, she said. "This is the way for a lot of local families to start the conversation about who we were."