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An education in black and white

Not all of Gladys Williams' pupils could afford their own tin cups when she was a teacher. Williams would show them how to make cups for the day out of a sheet of paper, so they could have something to hold water from the blue bucket filled each morning from a nearby spring.

It was the 1940s, and the war was on. Resources were scarce all over - but even scarcer at Hosanna School north of Darlington, where Williams taught: She and her pupils were black, and the school, in the Berkley community in northeast Harford, was an outpost of segregation.

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Yet the school was important for the community and for its pupils. Hosanna was the promise of education.

Separate, but unequal

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More than a century after its 1867 founding, the Hosanna School is still a part of Harford life. It was the first public school for African-Americans in the county, and has been restored and refurbished, a reminder of the separate and unequal facilities black children faced in trying to get an education.

For Williams -whose job at Hosanna was her first after going to Bowie State University - the small school, with pupils from the first through the seventh grades, was unremarkable.

"It was just normal to me," Williams said. At college, she learned how to teach a range of subjects - including music, for which she had to learn how to play the piano. "We were taught [in college] like we would have to teach in a one-room school."

Christine Tolbert was one of Williams' pupils. Back then, the school wasn't a historic landmark - it was just the place she and the other children, who didn't have buses, walked to for their lessons. When the school closed during 1946, Tolbert didn't think she would miss it. "I didn't feel sad because I thought, 'We're going to this big, two-room school, and we're going to get to ride a bus."

That kind of experience was typical for African-American schools across the country, said Quentin R. Lawson, executive director of the National Alliance of Black School Educators. As a student in West Virginia, he attended a similar school, down to the pot-bellied stoves used to heat the buildings in winter. "You need to live it in order to really understand," Lawson said. "Not only just to have the archaic environmental conditions, but for one teacher to teach seven subjects is incredible."

The school's history began decades before the Civil War. In 1836, a free black man named Cupid Peaker bought the property, behind which was a log church where African-Americans worshipped. Nearly 30 years later, the Freedmen's Bureau built the then-two-story structure as a school, a place of worship and a community center.

The school is very different today. The room is divided between period desks and folding metal chairs, all facing the historic displays at the front. There are cases along a side wall, showcasing the glass inkwells that fit in the hole in pupils' desks and the metal lunch pails they took to school, as well as other reminders of the past.

In 1954, Hurricane Hazel tore off the second story, which had been unused after the local African-American population declined, partly because so many people moved to the less-segregated Philadelphia.

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The Hosanna Community House Corp., which had bought the property in 1948, put a roof on what was left.

Restoration efforts

But much of the original school remains, thanks largely to the restoration efforts of Tolbert, who is the executive director of the corporation.

The three square columns in the center of the schoolroom date to the school's founding. The surfaces are rough and pockmarked, studded with nail holes and carved by generations of pupils into a collection of letters, lines and designs.

The boards in the wainscoting are original, too, each numbered when they were removed so that restorers could put them back in the same order.

The school's restoration is important for the county, said Mary Chance, director of the Department of Community Services for the county.

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"I think Harford County has really made a commitment to the preservation of these buildings and to say, 'We appreciate how hard it was for you and we want to recognize and thank you for your contribution to our community,'" Chance said.

Such restoration projects are "a celebration of those individuals that went to that school."

The entire Berkley region has been getting more attention recently, as well, having been added to the National Register of Historic Places after a preservation campaign that began in 1998.

The area also saw heavy traffic in past centuries, because part of the old U.S. 1, a major north-south byway of the time, passed there.

And Berkley was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, with slaves pausing there on their way to freedom.

Chance credited Tolbert and Constance Beims, the coordinator of the Berkley Crossroads Preservation Project, with getting the area on the historic register. "These women have put their hearts and souls into this project," Chance said.

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Tolbert and Beims have also written a book detailing the region's history, A Journey Through Berkley, Maryland: A Tapestry of Black and White Lives Woven Together Over 200 years at a Rural Crossroads.

The preservation of Hosanna is far from over, Tolbert notes. The corporation wants to restore the second story. The stairs remain, but lead only to attic space. An architect is drawing up plans, and construction could begin as early as the spring.

The community efforts to preserve the school and the area are characteristic of Berkley, said Mary Henderson, the chairwoman of the library committee for the Historical Society of Harford County.


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