‘We love telling good stories’: Howard County’s role in the Underground Railroad
By Janene Holzberg
Baltimore Sun Media|
Aug 09, 2019 | 6:00 AM
It could be the stirring orchestra music or the way the camera slowly pans across works of art depicting slaves making the dangerous trek north to freedom.
Either way, the introduction to a short video called “HoCo Stories: The Underground Railroad” instantly commands viewers’ attention.
Just under five minutes in length, the film released July 30 by Howard Community College’s Dragon Digital Media tells the story of Howard County’s role in the Underground Railroad, a network of people who set up secret routes and safe houses to help escaped slaves.
The video can be viewed on the college’s website at howardcc.edu, its YouTube channel and on cable channels Comcast 96 or Verizon 41.
Through interviews with local leaders, the second episode in the “HoCo Stories” series provides a quick history lesson on the life of Harriet Tubman, the Maryland-born heroine and escaped slave who risked her life to lead others out of bondage.
Louis Garcia, senior producer and director of the series, said the college wants to reinforce its connection to Howard County through video outreach.
“We love telling good stories that keep us in touch with the community,” said Garcia, who also serves as writer and narrator for the series.
Tubman’s name has been in the news for many months.
The controversial delay over putting the abolitionist’s portrait on the $20 bill to replace U.S. President Andrew Johnson, a slave owner — which originally was slated to take place in 2020 — has trained a spotlight on the Dorchester County native’s life.
And just a week before the Underground Railroad episode was posted, a trailer debuted for the Hollywood film “Harriet,” which will open in theaters in November.
Starring British actress Cynthia Erivo in the title role, the film also features Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton” fame and singer-actor Janelle Monáe, a star of “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight.”
Talk about fortuitous timing. And there’s more.
Garcia and series co-producer Anthony Hoos chatted in March with Harriet Tubman Foundation president Bessie Bordenave after her guest spot on the “Reflections on Life” radio program of former Howard County executive and state representative Elizabeth Bobo, which is recorded at the college’s studios.
That casual encounter sparked the idea to create a video on Howard County’s role in the Underground Railroad as the former Harriet Tubman High School, which was renamed the Harriet Tubman Building in 2004, is being converted into a cultural center.
Also, the foundation will celebrate Harriet Tubman Day on Sept. 21, with festivities planned from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 8405 Harriet Tubman Lane in Columbia, Bordenave said. She added the nonprofit organization’s goal is to complete renovations by September 2020.
“HoCo Stories” was formerly known as “A Few Odd Minutes in Howard County,” which is an original 14-part video series inspired by ghost tours Hoos and others lead for the county-based Maryland History Tours.
But the media staff soon realized tales of the paranormal aren’t in endless supply.
“Once the well started to dry up, we decided what we do needs to fit back into the college’s mission” of educating the community, Hoos said.
Plus, the co-workers reasoned there were historical topics they wanted to tackle, and so the name was changed to allow for filming a wider variety of topics.
On-camera interviews in the latest episode include Bordenave and Melvin Kelly, a member of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture. Their sessions were filmed at the Howard County Center of African American Culture on Vantage Point Road in Columbia.
The two are cousins who graduated from Harriet Tubman High School, an all-black school in what is known as Simpsonville. The county closed it in 1965 because of desegregation laws.
“People riding by have no idea how much history is right beside them,” Bordenave, 75, said of efforts to restore the building and to set up a classroom, gym and cafeteria as they once were at the beloved school.
The video on Howard County’s role in the Underground Railroad “was a good idea and something that was needed,” she said. “The video captures a lot and I was pleased with how they managed to connect the dots and tell the story,”
Kelly, who is 83 and lives in Severn, agreed.
“A lot of people locally and statewide would benefit from viewing it,” he said. “I’m hoping it will whet people’s appetites to learn more about Harriet Tubman.”
The first episode of HoCo Stories, called “We Moved A House,” tells the story of relocating the home of George Ellicott, whose father Andrew Ellicott was one of the three brothers who founded Ellicott City in 1772.
The two-story granite structure, built in 1789, was moved 200 years later from its spot on the banks of the Patapsco River to higher ground at the northeast corner of Frederick Road at Westchester Avenue, where it serves as office space.
Video of the engineering feat and archival footage round out the episode’s history lesson. On-camera interviews include Charles Wagandt, president of the Oella Co., which manages, develops and rehabilitates historic mill village properties.
“We really wanted to feature Charles, but that video took a long time to come to fruition because getting him to talk about himself wasn’t easy,” Hoos said, describing Wagandt as “humble.”
While four or five minutes is the target length for future videos, there was so much quality footage and sound bites on the George Ellicott House that the video runs 9½ minutes.
Dragon Digital Media wants fans to know the series’s new moniker doesn’t spell the death of spooky videos.
In fact, the next episode, which will probably go online in mid-September, tells the tale of a female apparition that haunts Manor Hill Tavern, a restaurant on Old Columbia Pike in historic Ellicott City.
Between 30 and 40 minutes of footage is filmed to create a four- or five-minute video.