The woman behind efforts to preserve Howard County's last all-black high school

When Bessie Bordenave talks about her high school experience, she swells with pride.

“I was part of the best class — the class of 1962,” she says. “I loved going to Harriet Tubman High School. We felt like we were a family.”

It’s a love that hasn’t faded in the half-century since Howard County’s last all-black high school closed, just three years after she graduated. Walking its empty halls on a recent winter day, Bordenave is confident that the building is ready for its next act — as a cultural center filled with the hundreds of artifacts and mementos she’s collected over the years from alumni and staff.

Bordenave, 74, leads the Harriet Tubman Foundation, a dedicated group of volunteers working to preserve the legacy of their treasured school, whose aging classrooms had been used as a maintenance facility until recently. With the Columbia building now vacant and awaiting renovations, Bordenave and her classmates are as close as they’ve ever been to honoring what they consider a key piece of the county’s African-American history — and a defining force that shaped their lives.

Each time Bordenave enters the building, she’s filled with nostalgia.

“It’s like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I click my heels,” she says. “It’s like coming home.”

Graduations attracted crowds of hundreds, as did basketball games, according to Bordenave, who played the trumpet and trombone in the school band. Like almost anyone who attended high school, she has fond memories of the prom, when she got to stay out later than her usual curfew.

But Bordenave was aware that Harriet Tubman was distinctly different from all-white schools. She also remembers the used books with missing and torn pages, and the hand-me-down desks from white schools. She says students took extreme care to preserve their books and surroundings because they had no idea when — or if — they would receive replacements.

“In spite of not having the newest books and resources, it made me appreciate what I had,” she says. “The teachers and administration took an interest in all students making sure that they got the education that they deserved.”

Recognizing that she was at a disadvantage always made Bordenave strive harder. Bordenave went on to Atlantic Business College in Washington, where she specialized in shorthand and typing. That led to a 51-year career with the federal government, including a stint with the White House answering correspondence during the Lyndon Johnson administration, where she worked closely with first lady Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson.

“I was able to get to the White House from my little town of Jessup,” says Bordenave, who on a recent visit to the school was wearing a T-shirt adorned with the image of its namesake, Harriet Tubman, the storied abolitionist and scout who freed dozens of slaves through the Underground Railroad. “Going to that school gave me that opportunity. It just helped me a lot to appreciate what I had in spite of what I didn’t have.”

In January, she retired from her position as a telecommunication analyst with the Federal Communications Commission, allowing her to dedicate more time to her nearly 30-year effort to preserve the memory of the school.

Bordenave began collecting memorabilia in 1990. She’s tracked down every yearbook except from the class of 1954, which apparently didn’t have one. She also has various code of conduct booklets issued to teachers, as well as employment applications from aspiring teachers accompanied by their photographs.

“I didn’t want to lose them. I’m a history person,” she says, explaining that she's contacted family members of former students to obtain various documents. “I’ve gone to libraries and have gotten information from as far back as 1948 [the year the school opened]; a lot of the information people have not seen at all.

Her talent for tracking down those artifacts is impressive, says Roberta Kelly, a board member of the Harriet Tubman Foundation and Bordenave’s cousin.

"If you want to know something about Howard County or Harriet Tubman High School, you talk to Bessie Bordenave," Kelly said. "She is a preserver and protector of the black community."

The school’s location is a history lesson in itself, according to Bordenave. The building is situated near a cave off what is now Cedar Lane, which was believed to have been a hiding place for runaway slaves who were being led to freedom by Tubman along the Underground Railroad. The nearby Locust United Methodist Church was part of the escape route and was visited by Tubman, she says.

Despite its historical significance, Bordenave’s beloved school has been the source of contention in the county for decades. Though the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, Harriet Tubman didn't officially close until 1965 because the county took a gradual approach to integration.

Early last year, Bordenave and the foundation were pleased when the building was transferred from the school system to the county government.

Now, County Executive Allan H. Kittleman says the foundation’s vision could be actualized as soon as the end of this legislative session.

State Del. Frank Turner is proposing a bond bill for $500,000 this year, he says, adding that the scope of the project would depend on how much money is approved. (Initial estimates show that remediation of the building would cost $2.4 million.)

Kittleman says he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “There is support throughout the delegation.”

Kittleman said that he’s worked closely with Bordenave over the past four years.

“I have developed a tremendous respect for her and her desire to make the community better and to make sure that people don’t forget,” he said. “We don’t talk enough about the struggle people had so that we have the life we do today.”

Dorothye Craft, whose late husband, Silas Craft, was the longtime principal of the school, appreciates the work Bordenave is doing.

“I know he’s smiling down,” says the 94-year-old, who says her husband was “the most hated black man in Howard County” at the time for standing up for the quality of black students’ education.

Bordenave predicts that renovation efforts on the building will begin as early as the end of spring for a center that will be a resource for Howard County’s diverse population.

“We don’t want it just to be about the African-American experience. We want to also recognize other ethnic groups in Howard County,” she says. “The building is very big. There’s enough room to include other cultures.”

In the meantime, she’ll continue to assemble pieces of history to fill the halls of her cherished red-brick edifice.

“When the center opens I want everything to be in order and in good condition,” she says. “There’s so much history that should be shared about the African-American culture in Howard County that people don’t know anything about.”

While Howard County waits for the proposed cultural center at Harriet Tubman High School to come to fruition, other local groups are planning Black History Month events honoring local African-American legacies.

  • The Columbia Orchestra kicked off its Black History Month activities early with its Jan. 27 concert featuring Baltimore-based beatboxer Shodekeh. That piece was described as “a musical re-imagining of a chess game in which the soloist plays against the orchestra.” Their free chamber concert on Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. at Glenelg United Methodist Church will feature a piece by African American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain. 410-465-8777 or columbiaorchestra.org.
  • Students from more than a dozen Howard County elementary schools will present “Unheard Perspectives Showcase: Student investigations of black history” in collaboration with the school system’s Black Student Achievement Program Wilde Lake Middle School on Feb. 10. 410-313-6642.
  • Baltimore & Ohio Ellicott City Station Museum will offer a Living History Day event focused on colored troops from the Civil War — specifically those with ties to Howard County. This free event will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. February 17 at the museum. 410-313-1945 or howardcountymd.gov/rap.
  • “Julius Rosenwald: A Great Man We Hardly Know” will be part of the Baltimore & Ohio Ellicott City Station Museum’s lecture series. The event, which will be held at the Ellicott City Colored School, Restored, will look at the life of the philanthropist, who raised money for colored schools during segregation. The $5 event requires pre-registration at howardcountymd.gov/rap.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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