After 11 years of hopes and hard work, Howard County has issued a building permit for restoration of the Ellicott City Colored School -- the county's most prominent reminder of its segregated past.
As contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers work to shore up the stream-eroded hillside on which the 19th-century wooden schoolhouse sits, advocates for the project are exulting that work on the building itself may begin by summer's end.
The old building is in delicate shape -- so tattered that the county spent $40,000 in 1998 to keep it from collapsing. A huge tarpaulin covers one end of the roof, and restoration will mean virtual reconstruction of the bare one-room schoolhouse.
"We were all overjoyed. We were excited" to finally get the permit, which will allow a contractor to be hired, said Sylvia Cooke Martin, who has spearheaded the project for the county's African American Genealogical Society, the sponsoring organization.
From a historic standpoint, preserving the fragile one-room school "is critical," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County.
"We do a pretty good job of saving the big, impressive manor houses, but they're just one aspect of our historical perspective. If we don't save the smaller things, we don't have a true perspective. Few of us lived in those big houses," she said. "Saving this is maybe one of the critical saves in Howard County."
The school represents the segregated experience of Howard County's 17 percent black population in the 1950s, long before Columbia. The county had only 23,119 residents in 1950 -- less than one-tenth of today's population.
Blacks in the small, rural county lived a second-class existence, hampered by the white population's total control of government and county schools. High school was not available to blacks until the late 1930s, and not until 1948 was segregated Harriet Tubman High built near Atholton.
County high schools were not fully desegregated until 1965. Blacks got used texts and fewer resources because white officials believed black students would always do manual labor and would never need an advanced education.
The Ellicott City Colored School, at the base of Rogers Avenue above Main Street, was built in the late 1800s and closed in 1953. The one-room school had outside latrines, and older students carried water and fired the coal stoves on winter mornings.
Ken Alban Jr., capital budget expert at the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, said getting the building permit is "incredibly exciting."
Alban has shepherded the effort since 1995. Money for the $800,000 project was approved by the General Assembly in 1990.
"We worked long and hard on this. It's a complex project," because three levels of government are involved, he said. "It's probably the most demanding project I've ever been involved in," Alban said.
State Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican whose district includes the school, has also pushed for quicker progress.
"It has been a long time coming. I'm delighted we're taking this step," he said, adding that perhaps the progress will "create momentum for other African-American groups" to unite in future efforts.
The county plans to advertise for bids on the work within two weeks. After 30 days for the county to receive bids and award the job, the winning builder will have up to 45 days to sign a contract. Alban hopes work will begin by late August. After the building is restored, the county will pave a small parking lot on Main Street to allow for several school buses. The building will be a memorial to the past and a teaching instrument for the future, advocates said.
Cochran noted that although the progress is encouraging, old, fragile buildings such as the school often cannot wait for rescue.
"The problem is that a lot of these old buildings, barns, cabins -- most of these buildings can't wait 15 to 20 years," she said. "If you look at the continuum of decline, for all of the [historic] sites, the ones most interesting are in the worst straits." That's why her group recently inaugurated a publicity campaign for the "Top 10" endangered county historic sites.
That vulnerability goes double for historic black sites, which, although "a significant part of our history," have not had the money or general community support for restoration over the years.
Cooke Martin said that although getting work under way may seem to have taken forever, "a long time is relative." The important thing, she said, is that the hillside stabilization is finally under way, and "that will make sure the school doesn't fall into the [Tiber-Hudson] river.
Now, she said, "We're ready to move."