Harriet Tubman Day marks milestone for former school

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

The former Harriet Tubman High School will reopen its doors to former teachers, students and others in celebration of Harriet Tubman Day on Sept. 16.

Hosted by the Harriet Tubman Foundation, the celebration has been an annual event since 2002 to bring together alumni and staff each year, according to foundation President Bessie Bordenave, a 1962 graduate of the school. Founded in 1949 as the county’s only all-black high school, it was closed in 1965 after county schools were desegregated.

This year, the event will signify a major step forward to turn the building, which in recent years has been used as a maintenance facility for the county’s board of education, into a county cultural and educational center.

Saturday’s celebration will include music, dancing and cultural groups including those from the Asian, Hispanic and African communities, Bordenave said. There will also be a ribbon cutting ceremony at noon as well as speeches from County Executive Allan Kittleman, District 13 state Del. Frank Turner and many former students of the school.

Turner has been a long-time advocate of tranforming the school into a cultural center, and said he is glad to see the project finally moving forward after more than two decades of work.

“For generations to come students will be able to come by and learn about the school and learn about Harriet Tubman, and we’ll have some basis for really being energized about some of the contributions she made to society,” Turner said.

Joan Hash, who was part of the last graduating class of the school and is a member of the foundation, said Kittleman’s effort to bring the school back to the community has “made our dreams come true.”

“Executive Kittleman by his actions has shown that he understands the importance of the Tubman legacy and the story that we have that needs to be told, that needs to never be forgotten,” Hash said. “So having a place that the community can come and see some of that history is extremely special.”

“This is something that is really important for Howard County,” Kittleman said. “We have a history of segregation in our schools dating back to the early 1960s and before, and I think it’s important for us to remember our history and preserve our past as a way of teaching those in the future how to be better.”

The initiative has been a passionate project for Kittleman, whose father, Robert Kittleman, once served as president of the local chapter of the NAACP. Kittleman has been working to have the building transferred from the board of education’s ownership to the county’s since being elected in 2014; the idea was one of his campaign promises.

Members of the Harriet Tubman Foundation have been pushing the school system for more than a decade to turn the school over to be used as a cultural center. Hash said she’s seen efforts made in Carroll and Harford counties to honor the legacy of their all-black schools, and she’s pleased to see that Howard is now taking those same strides.

Howard County officials reached an agreement on the transfer in October 2015, and have been working on the details of the transfer and the opening of the school since. In recent months the county identified the Mendenhall building as the new site for the board of education’s maintenance facility that is currently housed in the school, but officials are still in the process of actually moving the materials out of one building and into the other; for now boxes still line the halls at Harriet Tubman.

No target date has been announced for the opening of the school as a cultural and arts center, according to Kittleman. Bordenave said she hopes to see the process completed within the coming year.

Turner said he was frustrated by the lack of a clear timeline for finishing the development of the center, particularly because he wants it to be completed in time for graduates of the school to see its opening.

“There’s a lot of renovations that have to take place in that building to make it really functional,” Turner said. “And that’s my major concern is that more money has to be put aside in the annual budget to make that place rea

dy.”

Once the center is open, Kittleman said he’d like to see it used for field trips by local schools as a way to learn about Howard County’s history in the Civil Rights Movement, a subject he’d also like to see covered in school in the county.

“I’d love to have something about what happened in Howard County and what it was like for African American students in the ’50s here,” he said. “I don’t want people to forget about that.”

Despite the fact that the process of transforming Harriet Tubman is still underway, Bordenave said she is incredibly excited about Saturday’s celebration and the chance to bring more of the community to the site.

“If you could have seen me yesterday at the school to see how it was coming, I was almost ready to just fly,” Bordenave said.

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