In 1950, Howard County was a primarily rural, predominately white farming community of around 23,000. Since then, the population has grown more than tenfold and diversified — so much so, that in 2012 the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning predicted it would become a “majority minority” county “in the next five to ten years.”
By 2017, nearly half of Howard’s more than 320,000 residents identified as racial minorities.
That growth is partly a reflection of broader trends. Since 2010, nationwide increases in every minority race and ethnic group tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau have outpaced that of non-Hispanic whites.
But the diversification of Howard County has surpassed that of the state and nation. Howard’s minority population has grown by more than 30 percent since 2010, compared with roughly 14 percent in both Maryland and the U.S.
When did Howard’s largest minority groups start moving to the county, where have they settled and how has the county evolved as a result?
We use Census Bureau data to examine these questions, and ask what it means as the county continues to rapidly grow.
Black history beyond Columbia
Howard’s growth got a boost from the founding of Columbia in 1967 by James W. Rouse. The planned suburban community was created to foster racial and economic integration.
But African-Americans in Howard predate Columbia’s founding.
Some residents can trace their lineage back to slave families, said Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard Historical Society. Other communities, like Simpsonville’s Freetown (now part of Columbia), formed in areas where freed slaves settled during the Civil War era.
Located in Freetown is the former Harriet Tubman High School — the only high school for the county’s black students during segregation, from 1949 to 1965.
In Guilford (now part of Savage), Guilford Elementary School opened in 1954 for “colored” children only — months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. It desegregated 11 years later.
The Ellicott City Colored School, constructed in 1880, was the first publicly funded county school for black children and was in operation until the early 1950s.
“Ellicott City was a hub for African-Americans,” said Anita Pandey, a professor at Morgan State University and director of the Howard County African American History Project.
In the 1960s, while Columbia was being built, African-Americans living in historic Ellicott City faced a housing crisis due to de-facto racial segregation and racist housing practices, she said.
Conditions were so poor that the March 1967 issue of “Jet,” a national magazine for black readers, ran a cover story titled “Inside report on nation’s smallest black ghetto,” referring to apartments on the lower part of Fels Lane, a road off Main Street in Ellicott City.
The exposé was published two years after a fire in the same neighborhood killed a mother and four of her children. Community members reported a delayed response time from the Fire Department, said Pandey. The tragedy, coupled with the struggle for safe housing, paved the way for sociopolitical change, she said. In 1969, the county demolished lower Fels Lane, replacing it with a low-income public housing facility called Hilltop.
“Everyone who was left on the lower part of Fels Lane moved up to Hilltop,” said former resident Tyrone Tyler. The construction of Hilltop was seen in the community as a civil rights victory, he said, and former residents still hold Hilltop reunion parties. The 94-unit housing complex also drew “a mixture of black and white families” from other areas, said June Makle, another former resident.
When Hilltop closed in 2011 to make way for a mixed-income apartment complex called Burgess Mill Station, many African-Americans left Ellicott City, said Pandey.
“Burgess Mill was a more upscale property than Hilltop was, so they rented for higher prices than some of those people could afford,” said Tyler.
As a result, many black residents moved to areas like Columbia, Elkridge and places outside of the county, he said.
The availability of affordable housing is one of the factors that have given rise to the increase in the black population in these areas in recent years, said Pandey.
Growth driven by immigration
Howard’s population growth in the 2000s was spurred in large part by international migration. Between 2010 and 2017, Howard gained nearly 12,000 residents coming from other parts of the world, accounting for over a third of its population increase.
The county is Maryland’s fifth most popular destination for recent immigrants after Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Baltimore county and city, according to Census Bureau statistics spanning the 2013-17 period. A quarter of residents speak a language other than English at home.
Howard’s most common foreign languages
According to Census estimates over the 2012-2016 period, the most commonly spoken foreign language in Howard was Spanish.
- Spanish: 20.4 percent
- Hindi and related: 17.5 percent
- Korean: 14.2 percent
- Chinese: 11.4 percent
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2012-16 microdata (IPUMS-USA).
Hispanic and Latino immigrants make up around 50 percent to 60 percent of clients for the Columbia-based nonprofit FIRN (Foreign-born Information and Referral Network), despite Howard’s relatively low proportion of Hispanic and Latino residents; as of 2017, they made up 6.8 percent of the county’s population, compared to 10 percent in the state and 18 percent nationwide.
But that population is quickly growing. During the 2017-2018 school year, Hispanic and Latino children made up 10.7 percent of the student population of Howard County’s public schools. Conexiones, a nonprofit organization established in 2000, has worked to help increase graduation rates and improve other outcomes for those children.
The proportion of Hispanic and Latino clients served by FIRN is “not reflective of the population groups; it’s more reflective of the needs and the fear” in the community, said CEO and executive director Hector Garcia, referring to President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdowns and rhetoric, and the countywide debate over whether to make Howard a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants, limiting the county’s cooperation with federal authorities.
The “sanctuary county” bill failed to pass in March 2017 after lawmakers voted 3-2 not to override then-County Executive Allan Kittleman’s veto.
After Spanish, languages from parts of Asia — Hindi and related languages from the Indian subcontinent, followed by Korean and Chinese — are the next most commonly spoken foreign languages.
On a national level, Asian immigration to the country — particularly from South Korea — boomed after the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which overturned restrictive national origin quotas like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act.”
In Howard, more recent waves include immigrants from India and China.
A range of Asian communities
In Howard, the Asian population has seen the highest growth in recent years. Asians grew from an estimated 19,206 (7.8 percent) in 2000 to 60,318 (18.8 percent) in 2017 — tied with non-Hispanic blacks.
The county has seen a proliferation of Asian-owned businesses, including more than 166 Korean-owned businesses that are concentrated along a 5-mile stretch of Route 40 that officials designated “Korean Way” in 2016.
As a result of the diversifying Asian student population, the public school system has incorporated different religious and cultural holidays. In particular, parents have advocated for the inclusion of East Asian, Hindu and Islamic holidays into the academic calendar.
Religious and cultural holiday observance by Howard County Public School students
In 2016, the Howard County Board of Education surveyed parents about the holidays their children celebrate.
- Christmas Day: 80%
- Christmas Eve: 72%
- Easter Monday: 41%
- Lunar New Year Day: 11%
- Rosh Hashana: 8%
- Yom Kippur: 8%
- Diwali: 8%
- Eid al-Fitr: 5%
- Eid al-Adha: 4%
- Does not observe/no response: 4%
Note: Percentages sum to more than 100 percent because respondents were able to select multiple options.
Source: 2016 Academic Calendar Survey Analysis conducted by Hanover Research on behalf of Howard County Public School System.
During the 2018-2019 school year, two of the school’s “Professional Learning Days” are scheduled on Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights) and Lunar New Year Day (traditionally celebrated in China, Korea and Vietnam), meaning students have those days off. On the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, schools are scheduled to close 3 hours early due to a “Professional Work Day.”
The Indian population is the largest Asian ethnic group in Howard, making up just over 30 percent of the county’s Asian population, according to estimates from the Census Bureau for the five-year period from 2013 to 2017.
This is a fairly recent development; in 2000, Koreans outnumbered Indians; by 2010, the two groups were about tied.
Many Korean immigrants settled around Baltimore, rather than then-rural Howard County, in the 1970s during South Korean president Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian rule, said Charley Sung, a Columbia-based attorney and chairman of the board of the Korean Society of Maryland. Tensions between the Korean and African-American communities in Baltimore, including the 1993 murder of Korean-American college student Joel Lee and shootings at Korean-American grocery stores in 1997, led many Koreans to move out of the city.
Pravin Ponnuri, an information technology project manager for the federal government, attributes the more recent growth in the county’s Indian population to the post-2000 tech boom and notes the large number of Indian immigrants with H1-B visas, for skilled workers. Howard is a choice location for government contractors, for instance, because of its proximity to D.C., he said, as well as for its school systems.
Ponnuri, who has lived in Ellicott City since 1996, is also president of the Indian Origin Network of Howard County, which hosted a Diwali celebration that attracted thousands last October to commemorate the Hindu Festival of Lights.
Raj Kathuria, a local real estate agent who ran for county council, hopes to see religious needs of the community better served. For example, he said, many Indians practice Hinduism, and Howard, which is home to a number of houses of worship, does not have a Hindu temple. (A proposal to build a temple in Woodbine was rejected by the county Board of Appeals in March 2017.)
Chinese movement into the U.S. and Howard is also a more recent development, said Chao Wu, one of the county’s newly elected school board members. This is because diplomatic relations between the U.S. and mainland China were not fully established until 1980, he said.
As of the 2013-2017 period, there are nearly 10,000 residents of Chinese origin in Howard (3.2 percent of the total population, 18.4 percent of the Asian population). That’s more than double the number recorded by the Census at the start of the millennium.
The Howard County Chinese School, which offers Chinese language classes to around 1,700 registered students, has also seen significant growth over the years. When the school first opened in 1998, there were only around 80 students, said Jia Bei Wang, its principal.
But it’s not all about learning Chinese, said Wang, who helps the school organize events like the annual Chinese New Year celebration and days where businesses and insurance companies can offer their services to the Chinese community.
“It’s like a Chinese civic center,” she said.
Where inequality persists
Howard is one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., with the nation’s third-highest median household income ($115,576) and the state’s second highest per capita income ($51,045) after Montgomery County.
But as in most parts of the country, inequalities in Howard County persist, many of them along racial and ethnic lines.
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Median incomes are much lower for black and Hispanic households, compared with white and Asian households, according to Census data for the 2013-2017 period.
In Howard’s public schools, which are among the most integrated in the state, white students are more likely than black students to be placed in advanced classes, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis published in March 2017.
“As a county, we’re diverse,” said Ellicott City resident Ying Matties. “But when you look a little deeper, there’s two Howard counties.” Matties, who submitted testimony in support of Howard’s “sanctuary county” bill, helped start the Chinese American Network for Diversity and Opportunity.
Another challenge is getting first-generation immigrants involved in the broader community, said Chao Wu, the Howard County school board member.
“There’s a cultural and language barrier,” he said. Part of the reason he decided to run for the school board last year was to get Chinese and Asian Americans excited about the community, he said.
Pravin Ponnuri, the Indian Origin Network of Howard County president, says one of the organization’s goals is to become a venue for Indian Americans to more visibly give back to the broader community.
“We don’t want to be in a bubble,” said Ponnuri, who also ran for a seat on the school board last year. “We want to be part of the mainstream.”