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Civic league seeks historic designation for former Halethorpe Colored School

Otis Collins, president of the Halethorpe Civic League, reviews material compiled on the former Halethorpe Colored School on Northeast Avenue Feb. 5 at Oca Mocha. The league nominated the old schoolhouse, which is now managed by Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, to be added to the county's historic landmark list.
Otis Collins, president of the Halethorpe Civic League, reviews material compiled on the former Halethorpe Colored School on Northeast Avenue Feb. 5 at Oca Mocha. The league nominated the old schoolhouse, which is now managed by Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, to be added to the county's historic landmark list. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

The former Halethorpe Colored School has sat on North East Avenue since 1924. An unassuming, single-story brick building conveyed to Baltimore County in 1968, one of the few southwestern county schools for black children prior to integration, now plays host to yoga classes and private parties.

The Halethorpe Civic League, established by black Halethorpe residents in 1955, has nominated the old school for addition to the Baltimore County Landmarks List, a first step in preserving its historic merit, said Otis Collins, president of the league, which holds its monthly meetings in the former schoolhouse, now owned and managed by the county Recreation and Parks Department.

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“We don’t tell the complete story of America,” Collins said, referring to the whitewashing of U.S. history. “As we still grow and learn, we identify jewels, or treasures, that sustain those ideas, that sustain that information that’s found. This [school] was just one of those."

Properties are added on a rolling basis to the landmarks list by the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission, which oversees any proposed changes to a designated historic structure. The commission added the school to its preliminary landmarks list in September.

The Baltimore County Council is expected to vote on the landmark designation March 2.

The former Halethorpe Colored School on Halethorpe's Northeast Avenue was built in 1924, one of five schools for black students in southwestern Baltimore County prior to desegregation in 1954.
The former Halethorpe Colored School on Halethorpe's Northeast Avenue was built in 1924, one of five schools for black students in southwestern Baltimore County prior to desegregation in 1954. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

The former two-classroom schoolhouse was one of five schools for black students in southwestern Baltimore County prior to integration in 1954, with the others in Relay, Cowdensville, Catonsville and Granite, according to Louis Diggs, a researcher who has published 13 books on the history of black residents of the county.

Before he began his work 31 years ago, there was "no documented history in Baltimore County anywhere, except on the slave era,” Diggs said. “Nothing about free blacks.”

Diggs said he found that former black schoolhouses still in existence have been turned into private residences. Others, like the Halethorpe school, were repurposed as community centers.

“If African Americans from Baltimore County would like to share their history of African Americans, it is extremely important that they preserve as many of the remaining structures," Diggs said.

Ethel Collic, 83, a former Halethorpe school student, said the Halethorpe school was the "only place that the black children really had to go to” and that it was “the epicenter of this area; there was nothing out there.”

Collic’s sister, Catherine Burton, 85, who attended the school from first to fourth grade and went on to receive a degree from what is now Morgan State University, said there was just one teacher instructing them. Burton was the only one in her class, but students in different grade levels were taught together during the school day.

By the time the Halethorpe school was built, replacing a one-room, 19th-century schoolhouse on Washington Boulevard, Halethorpe had already become a hub for black families, many of whom purchased land once owned by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Co. to farm or split into individual lots in the late 1890s, Diggs said.

Black residents accounted for 9.4% of the Baltimore County population in 1930, and 6.4% in 1940, concentrated mostly in Catonsville, Towson and Sparrows Point, according to census data.

County school officials faced the same issues in the early 1900s that plague county schools today: a growing student population and lack of funding to build new facilities.

It was not uncommon that concerned white citizens of the communities provided the land to build schools for African American students, ” Diggs said. “People from the communities would either build the schools or would adjust their churches and lodges to create classrooms for the students.”

Black families, in particular, saw inadequate educational space and inequity for their children. Baltimore County school commissioners paid about $600 annually to teachers in the county who instructed black students in 1872, Diggs said. The teaching materials dispensed by the county for educators of black students were sparse and outdated compared to materials given to white schools, and if black residents wanted their own educational facility, they had to lobby for and build it themselves, Diggs said.

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“Those schools came about because of [black residents],” said the civic league’s Collins, and with assistance from groups like the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a national organization that seeded matching money for school buildings in states that did not provide adequate support education for black children.

Black Halethorpe families mounted pressure on school officials to build a new school, presenting officials with an $800 check for the endeavor in 1921, according to the landmarks application written by Collins and other league members; the school system only got on board after the entry of the Julius Rosenwald Fund.

With the $700 grant from the Rosenwald Fund and money put up by Halethorpe families, school officials paid $13,403 for its construction in 1923.

Two teachers taught Halethorpe students from first to sixth grade, Diggs said. Before 1939, Baltimore County was one of three Maryland counties that had no high school grades for black students, according to Baltimore Sun Media archives.

Halethorpe students were bused to the Banneker school in Catonsville to complete seventh grade, Diggs said, but it wasn’t until 1925 that the county began permitting black students to attend city high schools, if they passed a special exam.

“The only problem was they didn’t pay for transportation,” he said, or school tuition.

An “extremely high percentage of the fathers of these back students worked on the railroad” and gave their children tickets to ride into the city for school, but “there were many of them that said they just couldn’t do [that],” Diggs said.

It wasn’t until 1939 — after a failed lawsuit filed by Thurgood Marshall against the former Catonsville High School built in 1925 for denying admission to two black Cowdensville students — that Baltimore County opened three black high schools in what were formerly black elementary schools, Diggs said.

Collic, who transferred to the Banneker school after the Halethorpe school closed in 1947, remembered riding the wooden bus nearly 6 miles to Catonsville.

“It would break down, and you had to walk the rest of the way to school,” she said. “Sometimes we’d be on the road, on Newburg Avenue, and the bus would break down; we just had to get out and walk.”

The Halethorpe school was abruptly sold to private owners in 1947, who ran a nursing home there until the building was bought by the Halethorpe Civic League in 1959, according to the landmarks application. The league used it to host events before Baltimore County sought to purchase it in 1968.

“It really should be” recognized as a landmark, said Ed Collic, Ethel Collic’s husband.

“People our age, my wife and I, we lived through the big change. We lived through from total segregation to what they called Jim Crow to basically where we are today, which were all improvements, but we still have some problems, even today,” he said.

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Now called the Halethorpe Civic Center, the building is managed by the Arbutus Recreation Office under the county’s Recreation and Parks program.

“It’s kind of a little disrespectful" to rent the facility out for private parties, Collins said.

“I just thought to myself that this is something that should be restored; it should be sacred ground, for the most part," he said.

Collins sees the designation as the first step in preserving the school’s history. The Halethorpe Civic League’s vision is to create a museum there for public use that displays artifacts offering a glimpse into early 20th-century life for black residents of Baltimore County. Collins plans to work with the county on establishing a committee to see that plan through, and hopes management of the building eventually will be turned over to the civic league.

“We look forward to engaging with community members at the conclusion of this process in order to ensure the long-term success of this important cultural landmark," county spokesman Sean Naron said in an email.

“In order for America to really thrive, she has to show all of her jewels,” Collins said. “It can’t just be about Ellis Island because it’s not just about Ellis Island. It’s about ... a young country coming together, with people from different parts of the world."

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