The Saving of Harriet Tubman High School

Starting in 1890, “Jim Crow” laws were established to enforce racial segregation. These laws continued until 1965. They mandated “separate, but equal” facilities, especially with regard to education of African-American students, conditions that were consistently inferior and underfunded when compared to those available for white students.

Such circumstances threatened the proper education of black kids. However, through efforts of Howard County educators, such as Silas Craft, Elhart Flurry and Dr. Morris Woodson, and the teachers of Harriet Tubman High School [some of whom are still with us today], black kids were effectively engaged; poor kids were properly educated; and I’m sure, as was the case at Mt. Pisgah High School in Western Tennessee, my high school, “C” and “D” students were also well prepared for continued study beyond high school.

And this commitment and hard work by teachers of Tubman and Mt. Pisgah led to many African-Americans students receiving bachelor’s; master’s; and Ph.D. degrees from many of America’s top colleges and universities, as well as to many black graduates becoming doctors, lawyers, software engineers, etc., and yes, plain ol’ good American citizens.

The work of the Leola Dorseys, the Douglas Sands and, of course, former State Sen. Robert “Bob” Kittleman of Howard County (though they were not necessarily educators) played a significant role, as well. And yes, at Mt. Pisgah, Searcy C. Harris, Nannie Harris and Mr. Brazel all took used books and whatever else they could muster for one-room “underfunded” schoolhouses and brought the black students through [to graduation].

So, as far as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case calling for school integration, writes Derrick Bell, author of Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, the case was the “holy grail of racial justice” and thus we (America, that is), “should move forward with implementation of the case.”

What wasn’t realized at the time was that integration meant the closing of black schools, not white ones.

As for Tubman, which was closed, the Howard County Public School System administration never put the name “Tubman” on the school; for Mt. Pisgah, a 5-year-old “new” high school with excellent chemistry, physics, typing and French labs, eventually administrative decisions were made to take the school, reportedly contingent on changing the name. But, of course, Mt. Pisgah alumni resisted such a thing and (a few miles away) another high school of another name was built. So much for proper management of limited education resources.

President John F. Kennedy, in perhaps his most notable quote, requested of Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Obviously, compliance with Kennedy’s request called for Americans to be fully educated.

And these educators at Tubman; Brooks High School, of Prince Frederick (Calvert County, Md.); and Mt. Pisgah High School, in Tennessee, did just what President Kennedy asked them to do — with regard to making America, and places like Howard County and Columbia, greater for the community.

For example, the late Maggie Brown: a chemist from Sun, W.V., a coal-mining town, was educated in a one-room underfunded school house and ended up running Columbia Association, a $70 million operation servicing more than 100,000 people.

And Dr. C. Vernon Gray, the grandson of a tobacco sharecropper farmer, received a Ph.D., became the chair of the Political Science Department at Morgan State University, became the first black to become member and chair of the Howard County Council and subsequently remains one of the most influential politicians in Maryland.

And yes, yours truly, the son of a Tennessee cotton farmer from the rural backwaters of America, who was fortunate to be able to join with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and U.S. Rep. John Lewis and others in — as Ari Berman said in his recently published book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America — the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement or, as some say, putting in place the true essence of representative democracy in America.

Yes, that’s the leadership that the Harriet Tubman educators, and similar educators of that era, provided for America, under harsh conditions, enabling them to do what Kennedy asked them to do.

Whenever heroes are asked to stand, the teachers of Tubman High School and other high schools who stood by those kids in those “one-room” school houses [of Jim Crow] should also stand. And do so proudly.

And we, the Howard County community, should likewise be there, today and tomorrow, helping the Tubman community save Harriet Tubman High School.

— Sherman Howell, Howard County