Renewed focus on Howard's last black high school as 50th anniversary of closing nears

The county's only high school built for African American students is now used as office space for the school system's maintenance staff.
The county's only high school built for African American students is now used as office space for the school system's maintenance staff. (Staff photo by Luke Lavoie)

Much has changed inside the Harriet Tubman center, Howard County's only high school built specifically for African-American students.

The gym, cafeteria and many of the classrooms have been repurposed and reconfigured for use as office space for the public school system's maintenance staff. But one distinctive feature remains: the green lockers stacked in the old school's hallway.


"If you were to take a tour through that building right now, you would find the lockers operating the way they were when that building was first built," said Howard Lyles, a Clarksville resident who was part of Tubman's first graduating class in 1952.

Opened in 1948, the school shut down less than two decades later, in 1965, when the county's school system became integrated. The building represented the fruits of a long-fought campaign for the black community to have a proper high school building, rather than the four-room schoolhouse African-American children attended in Cooksville before Harriet Tubman was built.


For more than a decade, Lyles and other Tubman alumni have asked the school system to turn over the center, a 26,000-square-foot red brick structure next to Atholton High School and Howard County's Grassroots Crisis Center in Columbia, so that it can become a cultural center.

This year, as the 50th anniversary of the Tubman school's closing approaches, Howard County Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat from Columbia, has put forward a state bond bill asking for a $500,000 matching grant to help their request become a reality.

It's the first time the project has gotten attention at the state level.

"That's because if nobody does it, nothing's going to happen," said Turner, who pointed out that former County Executive Jim Robey had promised Tubman alumni the school would eventually be given to the community.

"A commitment was made 10 years ago, and people are tired," Turner said.

"It just seems like the promises that were made have not been maintained," said Lyles, 80, who serves as the chairman of the Tubman Foundation, a group that he and other alumni formed to advocate for the school as an important piece of Howard's history.

For the 18 years it was open, Harriet Tubman was where all black high school students in the county – from Laurel to Marriottsville to Elkridge – came for classes. The building remains a treasured landmark for many in the African-American community today.

"When you say Harriet Tubman in Howard County amongst those that attended the school, they would not particularly focus on Harriet Tubman the legendary leader herself," but would instead think of the high school, Lyles said.

"We have a lot of people in the community who went to Harriet Tubman who would love to see that building as a cultural center," said Bessie Bordenave, a 1962 graduate who serves as historian for the Tubman Foundation.

Bordenave said she has boxes full of history –yearbooks, newspaper clippings and other mementos – from the school that she'd like to share with the public.

"These kind of things don't belong in my house," she said. "For a county that's so wealthy, we should be able to look at our history, and it's sad that we can't."

But school system officials have said they can't vacate the Tubman building because they don't have an alternate facility for the support operations staff who work there.


At a state delegation hearing in December, School Board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui said it would cost $12 million to $15 million to build a replacement for the center.

"The Howard County school system needs a modern and efficient location for these operations and hopes to eventually transfer the current functions from this facility to a more satisfactory facility," Siddiqui said. "The Board of Education agrees with the intent of those proposing the Harriet Tubman project bond bill but is obliged to request that you postpone action until some alternative location is identified."

The school board started to plan for a replacement in late 2005, when it included $1.1 million to fund planning a new operations facility in its proposed fiscal 2007 budget. But that money was cut, and then the economic downturn put the project on a backburner, Lyles said.

The school system is facing financial challenges this year, with $5.7 million less than expected in state funding and tight county resources putting pressure on the budget, at a time when enrollment is expected to face unprecedented growth.

Turner said he doesn't think the bill will make it to a vote this year, because of the logistics involved in working with the school board.

But, he said, he's tired of "excuses."

"You can always use the budget as an excuse, even in good times. I find that unacceptable," Turner said.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said he was at the school last week as part of the county's Black History Month commemoration. He called it "an important piece of Howard County's history and a significant reminder of the progress we have made.

"I'd like to see the building preserved as a museum, but also realize it is owned by the Howard County Public School System, and their operational needs must be considered. We will all have to work together to make this a reality," Kittleman said.

In the meantime, Bordenave said the Tubman Foundation is circulating a petition in support of turning the school into a cultural center. She's also hard at work planning a 50-year celebration of the school's last year, which will be held Sept. 19 at Ridgely Run Community Center in Jessup.

Until the Tubman school has a brick-and-mortar center to commemorate its history, Bordenave said she would keep it alive in spirit: "There's a part of me that's a part of the Harriet Tubman High School."

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