Thanks to Burch's efforts, African American culture lives on in Howard County

You know you are entering a different world when you see the heavy cordless iron that requires a fire to heat it sitting atop a wooden ironing board covered with a bed sheet used as an ironing pad at the Howard County Center of African American Culture. For those who can remember manual eggbeaters and other hand-held tools hanging from the wall, this is a step back in time.

For some, emotion comes with seeing the white wooden kitchen cabinet that held someone's dishes in the early 20th century. And Argo used for starching clothes that dried in the sun on a clothesline in the back yard. And lye soap.

For those without such memories, this is new information from a pre-modern era of digital ovens, microwaves and refrigerators that make their own ice.

Wylene Burch, the founder and director of the center that sits alongside Oakland Manor in Columbia's Town Center, is giving me a tour of her gift to the city and the county. In the dining room there is a wicker wheelchair that eased movement for someone in 1856. There is a treadle sewing machine crafted by the ultimate maker, Singer. A walnut dining table and padded chair set belonged to a household in 1915.

And there is the Dominican nun I gave to Burch for her collection featuring mostly black American dolls, after visiting family in the Dominican Republic 17 years ago.

Huh. Seventeen years. The center was eight years old then, so this year brings its founding to 25 years ago, as well as a celebration to honor it this weekend.

Burch's Louisiana accent sticks with her, even after traveling with her military husband for 30 years. She and her family lived in 22 homes around the world and 12 states.

"I was always interested in travel and in meeting people," says an energetic Burch, whose eyes positively glisten when she speaks. "But when I look at this center, well, it is most enjoyable to see the things here that I have worked for."

The last post of Burch and her family was just across the county line, at Fort Meade. Interested in neither New Orleans nor her husband's native Pittsburgh, they looked at Crofton and Columbia as possible home sites. "We've been in Columbia now for 34 years. Columbia is the best place I've ever lived in my life," she says. "The vision James Rouse had of equal opportunity and the lifestyle Columbia offers are wonderful."

What Howard County didn't have, she explains, was a museum highlighting the history of African-American life and contributions in the county.

Creating the center was no easy task. An enthusiastic collector of artifacts and memorabilia, Burch launched a traveling museum and became the go-to person when groups, organizations and schools wanted information on the cultural lives of Howard County blacks.

But the cultural center, founded in 1987, also highlights the achievements of African-Americans in Maryland and around the world, and now has an extensive library and archives at Howard Community College.

Who knew that black artist Selma Hortense Burke's sculpture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the inspiration for the Roosevelt dime? Or that the name Azie Taylor Morton, as the first black female treasurer of the United States, appeared on American currency from 1977 to 1981? Or that Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first black woman to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Law (1950) and the first admitted to the Maryland Bar, was a descendant of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence?

A black-tie affair with a Cotton Club theme is on tap to celebrate the center and Burch's achievements on Saturday, Sept. 8, from 8 p.m. to midnight at the Sheraton Hotel in Columbia Town Center. For details, call 410-715-1921.

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