Bessie Bordenave said she cried in September when her beloved Harriet Tubman High School was reopened as a cultural center.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this is happening.’ Just thinking about it makes me emotional. I think about how great it turned out to be,” she said. “The children from the various schools come and get a taste of what it was like going to the school back then. … I think the children do need to know.”
Bordenave, 79, has been leading the fight for decades to make sure the memory of Howard County’s last all-Black high school was properly honored.
In the half-century since it closed — just three years after Bordenave graduated — the building in Columbia was used as a maintenance facility and then sat vacant. Now, the renovated school building is home to hundreds of pieces of memorabilia, offering a peek at life before schools in America became integrated.
“It is exactly the way I envisioned it to be. It is being used by everybody. I’m really proud,” said Bordenave, a retired federal employee who once worked in the White House under President Lyndon Johnson answering correspondence.
Harriet Tubman High School didn’t officially close until 1965 — nine years after the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional — because Howard County integrated at a gradual pace.
Around the state, more than 50 of the buildings that once housed all-Black or so-called “colored schools” remain.
Some, like the one in Columbia, now honor the historical significance of the schools. Others are in limbo.
The Maryland Historical Trust provided The Baltimore Banner with a list of 51 historical Black schoolhouses in the Baltimore region pulled from its database. The list may not be complete, an official said, as it was based on a database search and some structures may no longer be standing.
“With more than 60,000 historic properties listed in the database and [with] many of the historic property nomination forms created in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, it is possible some are not existing today,” said David Buck, communications director for the Maryland Department of Planning, in an email.
Structures may have been razed or turned into other developments, though some properties are protected in part by a National Register of Historic Places designation.
“Listing in the National Register honors the property by recognizing its importance to its community, State, or to the Nation, and confers a measure of protection from harm by Federal or State activities,” the website states. “It does not, however, place any restrictions on the actions of private property owners.”
Restored Baltimore County school spurs interest
Lutherville Colored School No. 24 is on the list of Black schoolhouses with National Register status, but it’s privately owned — by the son of a Black couple who turned it into a museum.
The two-room, one-story structure on Schoolhouse Lane was created in 1909 after Baltimore County Public Schools spent $1,987 for the land, school construction and books, according to state records. It was abandoned in 1955 after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending racial segregation in schools. Students were shipped to the Carver School in Towson, and the Lutherville schoolhouse was used for storage.
“Almost 40 years after segregation was struck down, the school is now of historic interest rather than a shameful reminder of exclusion,” a 1993 Maryland Historical Trust form read. “It was realized at this time that there were apparently no other small schools surviving that had been built exclusively for black students — some other schools having been ‘hand-me downs.’”
According to the document, a former student, Marie Jackson, lived across the street and hoped the building wouldn’t be sold to a white person. In 1994, Jackson’s cousins, Arthur and Helen Chapman, bought the property and converted it into a museum.
After the Chapmans died in 2021, the museum passed to their son, David Chapman, who now lives in New Jersey. But it’s Karen Darden who leads the museum’s operations. As a member of the Lutherville Community Association and a 30-year resident of the town, she learned about the school through her own research. If it were up to her, she’d have it open to the public more often.
She said repairs need to be made to the heating system and facade. She also wants to include a model outhouse to show visitors where kids and teachers had to use the bathroom over a century ago.
David Chapman said in an interview that the museum isn’t open five days a week and never has been, but “it will always be open.” How often, he said, is up to Darden.
“The goal is to keep it preserved as long as possible,” Chapman said.
People packed into the museum last week for a Black History Month event that was held there. Alumni came back to tell the public what it was like attending the school. People in the community, Darden said, have a real thirst for knowledge about that kind of history.
“It just showed me how many people were interested in that program,” she said.
Many in the community wanted to see what it’s like on the inside, so Darden held an open house in October. Only one classroom is on display, returned to the way it looked in 1909. Things like the original blackboard and cement foundation still remain.
She hopes to have another event in late May to display the artwork of talented elderly Black artists from the area.
Other communities are focusing on saving these landmarks, too.
Mary Ann Ashcraft, a volunteer for the Historical Society of Carroll County, said the Priestland Colored School, built in 1867 with money raised by the Black community, was turned into a church in Union Bridge called Bowen’s Chapel and School. However, the church isn’t functioning anymore.
“It was so important to that little Black community, it almost never had to close for lack of students,” Ashcraft said.
In Carroll County, the Historic Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse has been restored to its 1904 state and is now available for educational tours, as well as weeklong summer workshops on Black history.
In Harford County, the 111-year-old Havre de Grace Colored School, a former two-room building that eventually became the county’s first public school to provide a high school education to Black students, has been turned into the Havre de Grace Colored School Museum and Cultural Center. Fundraising continues to finish renovations.
The Freedmen’s Bureau built the first public school for Black children in rural southern Anne Arundel County in 1865, county historians wrote in 1992 as part of an effort to win national recognition for the remaining schools. Fifty years later, most of the schools built for these students were still privately funded. It wasn’t until 1916 that the county began building schools through the Rosenwald School Building Program created by the owner of Sears and Roebuck. A decade later, the county operated 24 schools — most of them two-teacher schoolhouses. Today, fewer than 10 remain with some converted as community centers or museums.
The Maryland Historical Trust lists nine historically Black schools in Baltimore City in its database, including Frederick Douglass High School, formerly known as Colored High and Training School, the alma mater of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that remains open.
‘An experience you can never talk about enough’
In Howard County, the total cost for transforming the Tubman school, named for the famed abolitionist from Maryland who escaped and led other enslaved people to freedom, into a cultural center was $9 million, with $7.53 million coming from the county.
For years, Bordenave said, the county had offered one excuse after another for letting the building remain in limbo, until then-County Executive Allan H. Kittleman “stepped up” and promised that it would be made into a cultural center. Kittleman, a Republican, and the school system worked together to make the renovation project a reality.
“They put it together and it turned out to be a wonderful, wonderful building,” she said.
Bordenave has fond memories of her school experience — even though she was aware that her white counterparts had better resources in their schools. Students at her schools used old books with torn pages and other discarded resources from white schools.
The love, support and family atmosphere at her school made up for the lack of resources and the system of segregated education that existed throughout the country, she said.
The response to the cultural center has been phenomenal, recalling the spirit that existed when the school was open in the 1960s, according to Bordenave.
“Attending Harriet Tubman High School is an experience you can never talk about enough,” she said. “The teachers were like our parents. They really had an interest in the students. The parents and the teachers worked together. It was wonderful. It was like going from home to another home.”
So far, the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center has attracted more than 5,500 visitors since it opened in September, according to Kori Jones, the center’s facility manager.
“It’s really cool. Folks have been really excited,” Jones said.
Jones’ own grandparents attended the school.
“I’ve heard about it. But to see the actual students in the pictures — seeing the fashion and classes they took, it’s really cool to relive that history,” said Jones, who was part of a community advisory committee that worked on the project.
Seeing the exhibits, displays and memorabilia throughout the center has given Jones a better appreciation for the experience of its graduates.
“Growing up, the pride and love that my family and friends had [for] the school was different,” Jones said. “When I went to high school, we didn’t feel quite connected. It became clear to me how much it meant to them. I now understand why.”
Bordenave, who is mostly responsible for amassing the center’s collection of memorabilia, is excited to have a place to display them.
She began to collect memorabilia in 1990. That led to her tracking down every yearbook from the school. She’s also found code of conduct booklets used by teachers and teacher employment applications accompanied by their photographs.
Books and desks — both hand-me-downs from white schools — that were used by students are also on display, as are older lockers, which will be available for purchase so that former students can put their collectibles on display in the center.
“It pays us to really pay attention to our history and look at things and keep this and share it later on,” she said.
Rick Hutzell contributed to this report.