In a decades-long process to reopen the Harriet Tubman High School in Columbia as a cultural and education center, a new advisory council is hitting the ground running and preparing for work to begin on building renovations this summer.
Bessie Bordenave, a 1962 graduate of the high school and chairwoman of the 20-member advisory council, said cafeteria remodeling is planned so it “will look presentable and somewhat like what it did” when the school was opened in time for Harriet Tubman Day on Sept. 15.
Harriet Tubman Day is an annual event hosted by the Harriet Tubman Foundation, a group that has been championing to preserve the school’s local legacy since 2002. Bordenave also leads the foundation.
The advisory council also wants to preserve one classroom. Bordenave said there is a search for old desks and chairs to “reminisce” and make the room “look somewhat like what it did when we went there.”
Founded in 1949 as the only all-black high school in Howard County, the Harriet Tubman school closed in 1965 after county schools were desegregated. The school is named in honor of Harriet Tubman, a civil rights advocate and abolitionist, who freed slaves through the Underground Railroad.
“I loved Harriet Tubman [high school], I loved going there,” said Bordenave.
“We were like a big family at school, everybody knew each other even though we came from all over Howard County,” she said.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman named members to a Harriet Tubman School Advisory Council last month.
“Howard County unfortunately has a history of segregation,” Kittleman said. “I want it [the building] to be used as a place for people to come together as a community.”
Last year, the county school system declared the building surplus and transferred the site to the county government. It had been used by the county Board of Education as a maintenance facility for more than three decades.
Kittleman, who has been working since he was elected in 2014 to have the building be turned over to the county, has set aside $500,000 in this year’s budget for renovations and removal of asbestos in the building.
District 13 state Del. Frank Turner, who announced in January he is retiring, has been an advocate of turning the former high school into a cultural and educational center. Turner is the first African-American to represent the county in the state legislature.
In the past legislative session, the county received $500,000 for the project, Turner said.
“I would like to see it done, finished and completed...I don’t understand why it takes so much time,” Turner said. “I want to get it done before so many of the students are no longer alive. The longer we drag it out, the less time the former students will be able to enjoy the final product.”
Bordenave is hopeful that the building will stand the way the council wants it to be by September 2019.
“We are looking at several ways to utilize the building. One way is historical and another is to educate,” she said.
The council wants to focus on African American history and have other ethnic groups represented.
The council has three younger members.
“We wanted to bring in some young people so we can have their ideas because we would be catering [the museum] to them,” Bordenave said.
So far, the council has met once, where the members discussed ideas on how they wanted to use the building space.
Bordenave said the biggest challenge is going to be tackling the gymnasium, “it’s going to take months.”
Kittleman said he’s looking forward to receiving recommendations from the council because he wants decisions to be formed by community members.
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“You’re going to hear some screaming, some tears shed and there will be excitement and joy,” Bordenave said when asked how she and her classmates will react when the project is complete.