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Bond bill bolsters hope for transformation of Howard County's Harriet Tubman Building

Plans to renovate and repurpose Howard County’s former all-black high school are seeing renewed vigor with the county delegation’s recent vote to support a $500,000 bond bill for the project — a measure that could result in $1 million overall with a county match.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Democrat who represents District 13 including North Laurel and Savage, introduced the bond request in Annapolis for the former Harriet Tubman high school. The school has long been slated to become a local museum and community center.

For the county to receive the money, the bond request must still pass the House appropriations committee. Atterbeary said she is “hopeful” to clear that hurdle. If the initiative is approved by the General Assembly, Howard County would have to within two years match it in order to receive the state funds.

The high school was built in 1948 and opened in 1949. It was named for Harriet Tubman, an ex-slave and abolitionist who served as a spy for the Union army during the Civil War and created the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad that helped others escape to freedom.

The school closed in 1965 after Howard integrated its schools under federal order. After its closure the school system used it as a maintenance shop, then turned it over to the county in 2015.

Atterbeary inherited the bond initiative from retired former Del. Frank Turner, the first African American to represent Howard at the state level. Turner, a Democrat who represented District 13 for 23 years, said talk of repurposing the school first surfaced while James Robey served as county executive.

“He made a commitment back then to the Harriet Tubman project,” he said.

Efforts to renovate it, however, went dormant until Turner attended events put on by the Harriet Tubman Foundation. For years, the foundation hosted reunions that brought together former students of the school.

“I decided to make it a priority and started pushing for bond bills,” Turner said.

In 2017 he requested $500,000 in bonds from the state. He received $300,000, and that amount was matched by then-Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. A year later Turner secured another $500,000 for the project from the state; that too was matched in Kittleman’s budget.

Turner said he’s confident that if approved by the full legislature, Atterbary’s request will be matched by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

“Calvin will match it,” Turner said. “I have no reservations about that.”

Ball spokesman Scott Peterson said in an email that the county executive is “committed to seeing that this project comes to fruition and will continue working with his partners in the state delegation for funding.”

He said the school “represents an important part of Howard County’s history and is a community treasure.”

Bessie Bordenave, a 1962 graduate of the high school and chairwoman of an advisory council working on the project, said the gymnasium and classrooms are undergoing renovation. The school also has asbestos it needs to be removed, she said.

“My hope is that by 2020, the building will be pretty much completed,” she said.

She has said advocates hope to use the space for historical and educational outreach. The advisory council in January voted to formally call the structure the Harriet Tubman Community and Culture Center.

Despite the progress, Turner said he is frustrated the renovation project “has been talked about for almost 25 years. And we still haven’t worked to the point where we got it completed. That’s a real problem.”

“Some of the people who went to the school are getting very old,” Turner said. “They want to see the project completed. Every time we delay it, there’s another generation of kids that miss” being able to see the culture center.

“That’s pretty unfortunate,” he said.

Turner said that part of the process was the building’s ownership by the school system.“You really couldn't do much until the school system transferred the property to the county,” he said.

In 2015, Kittleman had a hand in transferring the school to the county. And last year, he designated $102,150 to relocate the school’s maintenance shop, remove hazardous materials and complete renovations, according to the budget.

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