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Alumni to mark 50th anniversary of Harriet Tubman High closure

Alumni to mark 50th anniversary of Harriet Tubman High closure
Graduates of Harriet Tubman High School gather at the former building, which is now a facility the Howard County Board of Education. Left to right: Howard Lyles, class of 1952; Bessie Bordenave, class of 1962; Rev. Douglas Sands, class of 1952. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

"Harriet Tubman, Harriet Tubman … we love to dream of you!"

That was the first line of the school song at all-black Harriet Tubman High School before desegregation in Howard County brought about its closing in 1965, a climactic time of mixed emotions, alumni say.

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The 50th anniversary of Tubman's closing — 11 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional — will be marked Sept. 19 at the 2015 Harriet Tubman Day.

A bus trip to tour the former school building in Columbia, near Atholton High School, will be a highlight of the event, to be held at Ridgely's Run Community Center in Jessup. There will also be a slide show of class pictures, an exhibit of newspaper clippings and proclamations.

"We alumni have overcome in spite of everything, and we're going to party like it's 1965," said the Rev. Douglas B. Sands Sr., a 1952 graduate of the school.

The closing of Tubman — which had opened in 1949 in what was then called Simpsonsville — signaled a new era of equality in Howard County's public schools. But it also disbanded a beloved group of dedicated teachers and administrators at what had quickly evolved into a place of refuge for black students.

"Tubman felt like one big, happy family," said Bessie Bordenave, president of the Harriet Tubman Foundation and a 1962 graduate of the school.

"We knew closing it was the right thing to do for the black community, but we hated to lose that family feeling and to know we'd never see our wonderful teachers again," said Bordenave, a Federal Communications Commission industry analyst and youth adviser. "It was a difficult time for us."

Contrary to popular belief, Tubman provided black students "a better education, not a lesser one," said Sands, a Cooksville native.

"The teachers were exceptional, and they required us to learn beyond the textbooks," Sands said. "The Colored Countywide PTA, which had to buy our toilet paper and purchase our flag, even raised money for us to take field trips. I went on one to the United Nations. Imagine that!"

Following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, the county school system adopted a multiyear plan to gradually integrate its schools that many felt was unjust.

"The powers-that-be just resisted carrying out the law," said Howard Lyles, past president of the Harriet Tubman Foundation and a retired state prison warden. "Many black families felt that it was a time of outright racism on the part of the school administration."

Lyles, a Clarksville resident who graduated with Sands, said it was made clear when Tubman opened that black families "shouldn't expect anything else from the county."

The county's black youth had been underserved by the segregated public school system for so long that they had to be shown how to use Tubman's indoor plumbing, he said.

"We appreciated the building so much that we worked hard to maintain it," Lyles said of the red brick structure that's now used as a maintenance facility by the county's Department of Education. "If you walk in the hallways of Tubman now, it looks like it did the day it was opened.

"We still had to use mutilated, marked-up books, but we grew accustomed to that. We didn't let obstacles get in our way."

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Sands said transitioning to an integrated school system was not only an unduly slow process in Howard County, but one fraught with controversy.

"It had been a slow road — and a low road — to finally achieving integration," said Sands, who is pastor of White Rock Independent Methodist Episcopal Church in Sykesville.

His mother, Bessie Sands, decided in 1958 to take advantage of a process called "voluntary integration" to enroll his younger sister Susie at the all-white Glenelg High School instead of Tubman, he said.

"She was told that 'if Susie makes Cs, she will be sent back with the coloreds,'" he said. "My mother replied, 'No, she will stay with the white children at Glenelg who are making Cs.'

"That took nerve. People were just waiting for someone to challenge the school system."

Lyles said after segregation in schools ended, many black students felt they were not wanted by the white teachers and students.

"There was no physical violence, though, and their insults didn't discourage black students," he said.

Dorothye Craft, wife of Tubman Principal Silas E. Craft, said her late husband's goal when the school opened was to ensure that his students received the best education possible.

"If the white students had it, then Harriet Tubman's students were also going to get it," said Craft, who is 92 and lives in Silver Spring.

"He believed all students deserved the same education, and that was his push. He took his job very seriously."

Bordenave said the historical importance of the building hasn't always been respected over the decades the way the African-American community would like it to be.

"It wasn't until 2004 that the Board of Education erected [an additional] sign honoring our school's history that reads, 'Harriet Tubman Building,'" she said.

The Harriet Tubman Foundation board hopes the school system's maintenance offices will ultimately be shifted elsewhere and the building turned over to them for use as a cultural center, Bordenave said.

In the meantime, she keeps files of laminated newspaper articles, posters and other documents at her home that she plans to display at Saturday's celebration.

Sands said that, like Lyles and Bordenave, he is eager to reminisce about Tubman and its impact on black lives.

"What colored schools did best was to break stereotypes," Sands said. "That's what our teachers knew it would take for us to succeed, and that's what freed us."

If you go

The 2015 Harriet Tubman Day will be held from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 19 at Ridgely's Run Community Center, 8400 Mission Road, Jessup, with music and refreshments. Tickets are $20. Information: Bessie Bordenave, 443-280-1935, or the Rev. Douglas B. Sands Sr., 443-740-4855. Vendor space: Veralyn Austin, 443-519-7355.

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