Three years ago, Patricia Cole undertook a challenge near to her heart: purchasing the building that once housed the Havre de Grace Colored High School and turning it into a museum celebrating black heritage. Cole, a Harford County native and retired Army colonel, rallied her troops of community leaders and set up a foundation which, in 2018, acquired the property at 555 Alliance St. that had schooled hundreds of African American children during segregation between 1930 and 1953.
The preservation effort has been a labor of love for Cole, a graduate of Aberdeen High and Morgan State University who is now employed as a civilian at the Pentagon.
You didn’t attend the school, so why tackle this project?
My late father [Bernard James Cole] was in the class of 1949 and told me stories about his time there that are dear to my heart — like how he ran to and from school every day from his home in Aberdeen, five miles away. The school produced doctors and businessmen despite using hand-me-down books from white children. Yet teachers made sure their students were prepared to face the challenges of society.
When I retired from the Army in 2011, I got 11 of my father’s classmates together for a reunion, the first he’d ever attended. It sparked my interest in keeping the history of the school going.
Did your military career prepare you for the task?
I attribute a lot of what we accomplished to knowing how to organize and galvanize people. But this was really a team effort; everyone committed to the project.
Did you ever doubt you could raise the money?
We didn’t let the price deter us. The initial asking price was $800,000 but the owners [sisters Dahlia, Edna, and Elaine Hirsch] agreed to gift the property to us if we’d pay off the $153,000 mortgage. [Their] father was a doctor who’d fled Germany during the Holocaust and knew the importance of saving such a special piece of history.
How did you meet the price?
Barry Glassman, the Harford County executive, gifted $50,000; Mutual Insurance gave $15,000. The rest came from phone banks, silent auctions, T-shirt sales, a gumbo fundraiser and a wine and jazz festival. A local middle school staged a play where students explained the history of the [colored] school and set up a kiosk where people made donations. That our support was color blind shows how far we’ve come and how inclusive we are as a community, based on our shared values.
What was your reaction when you reached your goal?
Tearful joy. I couldn’t believe it. All I could do was cry.
So what’s next?
We’ve hired Dale Green, an architecture professor at Morgan State University, to help transform the building into a state-of-the-art museum and cultural center. The initial part of the school, from 1910, has its original classrooms and wooden floors, as well as the basement where [celebrated poet] Langston Hughes came to speak to students, and we plan to return it all to its original charm. We have hundreds of photos of former students and a banner made by the first graduating class of 1932. We’d like to tell the full story of the African American experience in Harford County, its segregation and how it impacted all.