Restoration finished, but school can't open


The freshly restored Ellicott City Colored School on Main Street won't open to the public as a museum and learning center until spring, but the county has scheduled an invitation-only dedication tomorrow to celebrate its completion.

The building is ready, with gleaming wood floors and fresh paint -- even a potbellied stove and a few antique school desks inside -- but a delay in replacing a concrete slab over the Hudson-Tiber channel that runs alongside the school's parking area is forcing an additional six-month wait.

Ken Alban, who heads the project for the county Department of Recreation and Parks, said a stronger concrete bridge must be manufactured and installed before operations can start. The bid award and manufacturing process stretched the opening beyond the target date of this month.

"The schoolhouse is complete, and there have been so many people waiting for so long a time" that the dedication will go forward, Alban said. He gets calls daily, he said, from people wondering when the school will be ready.

Despite the new delay added to the 11-year, $1.5 million effort to restore the 19th-century segregation-era schoolhouse, Sylvia Cooke Martin, a key supporter of the restoration project, said the postponement and the dedication serve legitimate purposes.

"It gives us a little leeway to raise funds," and the dedication "is timely to keep motivation up and spark people," she said. "Some of us need to see something happening."

Others, noting County Executive James N. Robey's re-election campaign, suspect another motive for acting before the general election Nov. 5.

"There's certainly an advantage to being an incumbent," Republican county executive candidate Steven H. Adler said about the timing of the ceremony. "The value to him [Robey] after November changes," he said.

Robey denied any political motive yesterday, saying he is not about to stop noting critical progress on long-term projects. "I'm the county executive until December," he said. "This was scheduled for months."

Cooke Martin, coordinator of the nonprofit group called Friends of Ellicott City Colored School Restored that will operate the building, said she is planning a grand opening for April, and a number of programs after that.

She and 25 to 30 volunteers had some programs ready in case the opening occurred this month as originally scheduled, Cooke Martin said, but she is looking toward April.

Next spring, "we want to invite everybody," she said. "In April, we hope to have 500 to 1,000 people," including Civil War re-enactors, genealogy experts and story tellers.

Permanent exhibits will honor black Civil War soldiers, baseball players, the families of former Ellicott City Colored School students and teachers and Beulah "Meach" Buckner, a Thunder Hill resident who helped spark and organize the restoration effort.

The museum will be open to the public Tuesdays and Saturdays and by appointment for groups. Monthly meetings of the nonprofit operating group will be held there.

Children are expected to see what life was like for black children 100 years ago, work on slate boards, use straight-ink pens and see what the hard, packed-dirt playground and replica outhouses looked like.

Exhibits will feature African-American contributions to Howard's development and history and crafts used by women from doll-making to sewing and knitting. Tour guides will discuss slavery, the arrival of railroads and other changes. College interns will help with research and computerization of information and with oral histories.

The museum will be linked to other historic sites, such as the B&O; Railroad Museum, Patapsco Female Institute and Benjamin Banneker museum in Oella -- across the Patapsco River in Baltimore County.

Banneker was an early African-American settler, astronomer and inventor in Ellicott City. He also helped survey for the planning of Washington.

John R. Byrd, chief of the Howard's Bureau of Parks, said the county will provide a small grant to help pay for utilities and some maintenance of the schoolhouse and grounds, similar to the arrangement with private operators of the railroad museum and Patapsco Female Institute.

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