Man seeks a home for black history

The Baltimore Sun

In a county that has museums for boats, rural art and duck decoys, John T. Lee Sr. says there is a noticeable omission in Harford's repertoire.

For more than 10 years, Lee has advocated for establishing a museum dedicated to African-American history in Harford County.

"We haven't had anything that our people can really associate with and feel good about, where people can look and say 'That's my uncle, my grandfather,' and make them feel proud and really learn the history," said Lee, a 64-year-old Havre de Grace resident.

To bring awareness to African-American history in the county, Lee is holding an exhibit of historical items today at the Holiday Inn in Aberdeen from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Lee, who works part time as a security officer at the hotel, will show 40 to 50 historic photographs of the county's African-Americans and their churches and schools. Many of the photographs were used in his self-published biography of Percy V. Williams, a prominent Harford County black educator.

"This is not half of the stuff that I have," Lee said of the items in the exhibit. "I have other things I don't want to put out. I'd rather have those ready and preserved for a museum, but I want to show that I need a place to house this."

At his Havre de Grace home, Lee keeps a hodgepodge of historical items: a newspaper from the 1860s; a 90-year-old container that Williams, the first black state Department of Education official, used to milk cows; and a football helmet of former professional player Earl Christy, a Harford native.

Lee envisions opening a museum with a collection of artifacts from local blacks who became doctors, educators, athletes and lawyers, among other professions. He hopes to have the museum named after Williams, which would have a "local flavor of Harford by showing the contributions that blacks have made."

Harford County has three historic African-American school buildings, including the Hosanna School in Darlington, which was the county's first public school for blacks. Created by the Freedmen's Bureau after the Civil War, the school celebrated its 140th anniversary yesterday.

The one-room school was restored, placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1991, and opened to visitors by appointment in 1994. Christine Tolbert, Hosanna School's executive director, said she welcomed Lee's efforts to drum up support for a history museum.

"There's a lot to collect, because there has never been an effort to do it," she said. "If somebody can dig up more stuff that we don't already have, it would be a great addition."

In a county where African-Americans make up about 11.5 percent of the population, Tolbert said, "We don't make up a great part of the population, but we've been here a long time."

Although the county currently boasts no museum of African-American history, Harford Community College has started a $1.5 million renovation and restoration project for Prospect Hill, a historic former horse farm located on campus. The plan for the project calls for renovating the main house to include an exhibit on the county's equestrian history and one on black heritage in Harford.

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