Once an all-Black high school during the segregation era, a local museum and community space in Howard County, Maryland, is slated to receive millions in funding for historical preservation and restoration. The American Public Works Association (APWA) selected the town of Columbia’s Harriet Tubman Cultural Center (HTCC) for the 2024 Project of the Year Award, making it eligible for a grant between $5 million and $25 million.
The center first opened in 1949 as the Harriet Tubman School, the only dedicated all-Black institution for grades seven through 12 in Howard County in a concerted push for better facilities for Black students at the time, and operated through 1965 before the county finally integrated its schools. The building was then owned and utilized by the county’s Board of Education as a maintenance facility up until 2o15, after which it was officially handed over to the county to be converted into an educational and cultural organization.
Between state and county funding, the restoration project received over $9 million and the space debuted as a cultural center and community center in 2022 with the help of the Harriet Tubman Foundation, led by several of the school’s alumni. Bessie Bordenave, who graduated from the Harriet Tubman School in 1962 and heads the foundation, fondly recalls her time at the school and credits her educational experience as the catalyst for her government career.
“I was able to get to the White House from my little town of Jessup,” Bordenave told the Baltimore Sun in 2019. “Going to that school gave me that opportunity. It just helped me a lot to appreciate what I had in spite of what I didn’t have.”
Since 2002, Bordenave and her fellow alumni have pushed for the school building to be renovated and converted into a historical site honoring not only Harriet Tubman and her legacy as an abolitionist from Maryland but also the education of African-American adolescents in Howard County. She has been meticulously collecting and archiving school memorabilia for the HTCC since the ’90s, including yearbooks, codes of conduct, photographs, and other such materials, to fully capture the experience of learning under segregation at the time.
The HTCC now displays Bordenave’s collection, which is especially relevant as the state moves to incorporate critical race theory into its education system. Alongside honoring and memorializing the school and its students as well as Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, the cultural center also boasts replicas of a classroom and office for historical tours, an auditorium, an art and dance studio, a recording studio, various multipurpose rooms, and a kitchen to facilitate all sorts of community events and affairs.
The center is also home to a large painting by muralist and university professor Brandon Donahue-Shipp that was donated by the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. Donahue-Shipp’s “3 Graces” (2019) appropriates an image of Civil Rights demonstrators congregating outside of the White House in 1965 to protest voter discrimination against the Black populace, offering an extended sampling of Black history in the DMV area during the year the Harriet Tubman School had closed.