New efforts are underway to document the history of African-Americans in Howard County. Some of the existing sites that already work to accomplish this are the African Art Museum of Maryland, in Fulton; the Ellicott City Colored School Restored; the Museum of Howard County History, in Ellicott City; and the Howard County Center of African American Culture, in Columbia.
The Original Courthouse
The Original Howard District Courthouse at 8398 Main Street in Ellicott City (behind the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin and adjacent to Parking Lot F) is the newest site endeavoring to tell the story of African-Americans in the county. The exhibits located there are currently twofold.
First, the Heritage Program of the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks has installed a permanent exhibit that talks about the site itself and its history as the first courthouse for the area and the cases heard there relating to enslaved people and those aiding and abetting freedom-seekers. Included in the display is information on the Underground Railroad in and around Howard County.
Second, the Howard County African American History Project (HCAAHP), a committee of the Howard County Historical Society, is currently featuring rotating displays on the history of the Fells Lane community, an African-American neighborhood that once was located in the area where Parking Lot F now stands. Many people are unaware of the existence of this community. The displays eventually will be available as travelling exhibits, and new documentation related to African-Americans in Howard County will be created and displayed at the site.
The Fells Lane Project
The HCAAHP mission is to collect and make available historical research on the African-American experience in Howard County from the colonial and pre-integration era to the present, create community-based projects to share this history and preserve local African-American historical sites.
The Fells Lane project has centered on telling the stories of those who lived in that area. Oral histories from residents as well as printed materials are used to convey what life was like for those living on the edge of town. It was a close-knit, vibrant community that enjoyed life but endured some very difficult circumstances.
By the 1960s, housing conditions there had deteriorated to the point that it was referred to as “the nation’s smallest black ghetto” in an article in Jet magazine in March of 1967. There was a serious lack of sanitary facilities. Most of the houses had neither outdoor nor indoor toilets; only a few had cold running water.
Consider that this was around the same time that Jim Rouse was proposing and creating his vision for the new, inclusive city of Columbia; it seems incongruous that these two situations could exist at the same time.
From Fells Lane to Hilltop
A brochure the Patapsco Heritage Greenway created for its Patapsco Valley Heritage Area History Days recounted: “In February 1965 a devastating fire [on Fells Lane resulting in the loss of five lives] became a watershed moment for both this black community and Howard County’s community at-large.” This tragic event was the catalyst for a call for change. Fells Lane resident Raymond Johnson emerged as a spokesman for the community, and ultimately the slums were demolished after the Hilltop Housing Community (now Burgess Mill Station) was built to house those from Fells Lane.
The community remained, and remains, tight-knit. The residents felt connected because they all had fought for their neighborhood; they all moved from the same slum. The dwindling numbers of former residents still hold an annual reunion. Sadly, Raymond Johnson passed away this year, but community members always will remember him for standing up and helping to effect change.
Former Fells Lane resident Tyrone Tyler has been instrumental in creating the displays, assisting with the oral histories and recreating a map of the community as it was in the 1960s. Anyone wishing to share their story from their time in this community — by way of oral history or photos from that time — should contact the Howard County Historical Society at 410-480-3250 or [email protected].
Ed Lilley, a member of the Howard County African American History Project, can be reached at [email protected].