It’s been 60 years since Bessie Bordenave graduated from the Harriet Tubman School in Columbia, the place still feels like a part of her.
“We were just like a big, happy family here,” said Bordenave, 78, a 1962 graduate of Howard County’s last segregated public school, an all-Black high school that operated from 1949 to 1965.
Bordenave, president of the nonprofit Harriet Tubman Foundation, has worked with many others in the county to preserve the school’s legacy for two decades. On Saturday, under blue skies, the building officially reopened as the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center, dedicated to highlighting the history of Black Howard County residents.
“I can’t believe that it has taken us so long,” Bordenave said. “However, the long wait has been well worth it. The building is fabulous.”
At Saturday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, a crowd gathered in front of the school’s former gymnasium and listened to speeches by several alumni and county, state and federal officials who helped make the transformation possible. The podium stood beneath a red brick facade, now emblazoned with Harriet Tubman’s name. When the building was originally dedicated in 1948, the Board of Education refused to place Tubman’s name on the building, according to the foundation.
The school was slated to be called Atholton High School, but the Black community advocated to name it after abolitionist and Dorchester County native Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and led more than a dozen missions to rescue enslaved people. Tubman’s name finally went on the building in 2004, thanks to the foundation’s lobbying efforts.
“The power of this place is undeniable,” said U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat whose district covers part of Howard County. “Over the last few years, we’ve had occasion to lift that up and to realize its full potential.”
In addition to a recreated classroom and museum, the building includes a library, dance room, recording studio and other rentable spaces.
“I’m just hopeful that this will be a building that will help to teach our children and their children the importance of civil rights and the importance of what happened here in Howard County in the civil rights movement,” said former County Executive Allan Kittleman, whose administration oversaw the transfer of the building from the Howard County Public School System to the county for preservation in 2015. Kittleman, a Republican, will face current County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat, in the general election this fall.
‘In spite of all of this, we’re going to make it work’
Secondary education opportunities for Black residents were severely limited in early 20th century Howard County. In 1935, the Board of Education voted to extend the Cooksville Colored School to eighth grade, and two years later the facility, which still used outdoor toilets and potbelly stoves, became the county’s first Black high school.
“At one point, the school in Cooksville only had one bus that came out of Ellicott City,” said 1952 Harriet Tubman graduate and former Cooksville student the Rev. Douglas Sands, 88. “That was driven most of the time by one of the students.”
Black educators and community members pushed for better facilities, and efforts paid off when the Harriet Tubman School opened for students in fall 1949 with a principal and 12 teachers.
“We had great teachers and we turned out some great students,” said Howard Lyles, 88, a 1952 graduate and the first president of the Harriet Tubman Foundation, who can still point to where his locker, number 258, stood in the hall.
Former students reflected fondly on their time at the school and praised teachers and principals Silas Craft and Elhart Flurry, who made the most of inadequate resources.
“Everything that we got was always secondhand,” Bordenave said. “We always got whatever was leftover from Howard High School or from other schools. But we said, ‘In spite of all of this, we’re going to make it work.’”
After the school closed in 1965 because of desegregation, alumni preserved heirlooms such as yearbooks and met annually to discuss the future of the building. It was used by the Board of Education as a maintenance facility for the next 50 years.
“We always met with the hope that Harriet Tubman would be open again,” Sands said.
Acknowledging the past while forging the future
Alumni voices were front and center as plans to preserve the Harriet Tubman School gained traction.
In 2015, the Howard County Public School System transferred ownership of the property to the county in order to create a historic cultural and education center. The project ultimately received $1.85 million from the state and $7.53 million in county funding.
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“The most exciting piece for me is that we renovated this facility alongside the community,” said center manager Kori Jones, whose grandparents attended the school.
The center’s museum space covers Howard County history from slavery through the Jim Crow era to the present day. Jones hopes current county public school students can learn the history while also using the wide array of modern facilities offered by the renovation.
“I think sometimes we don’t always fully acknowledge the history,” Jones said. “So to be able to say, ‘Hey, here’s the history of this space and let’s create new history’ and do it in a very intentional way is literally something that I would never imagine doing [before].”
Baltimore City resident Kahlilia Woodlon’s great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother lived across the street from the school property, where she played softball at family reunions.
“All the young generations will know this way was paved for you many, many years ago,” said Woodlon, 44, who brought her six-year-old daughter, Xzuriana, with her to the opening.
“I love this building, it’s amazing,” Xzuriana said. “I get to read things that I don’t know about and get to learn more about Harriet Tubman.”
Visit howardcountymd.gov/recreation-parks/htcc to view visiting hours and learn more about programming.