County History Does Change, Maybe.

As 2022 drew to a close, it was a natural time to reflect upon the year behind and the one ahead. Many people aren’t of the belief that history is exciting, and I often confess to not having had an interest in it while in grade school. Maybe that’s what the reader will also relate to. While I ponder what it is about history that ended up pulling me in, I hope that those reading this page have been pulled in by the way that our nonprofit has become known for doing history. The county has 4 nonprofits and one govt division doing history. Rec and Parks (Heritage department) is the govt division, and the rest of us aren’t. We all share in doing history.

During a recent presentation that I was asked to give to the Quaker/Friends congregation, I articulated who the various local organizations are and some of the differences between us. It’s not a bad thing that there are 5 of us, along with other individuals doing great work to put out information that they’ve used their time and energy to research and package. A question I get frequently is “why is there not just one history organization in the county?” and the answer I give is “It’s complicated, yet it’s simply because we are all different in how we do history which the county benefits from.” The nonprofit Howard County Historical Society, Inc. has been around the longest, but has increasingly reported (recently to news reporters) their self-reflection that they were aware that they needed to do better with Black History. We (Howard County Lynching Truth & Reconciliation, Inc) are the new nonprofit kid on the block. The Howard County African American Cultural Center, Inc. is a nonprofit that grew out of Wylene Burch’s frustrations (I’ve been told), and their collection of Black memorabilia etc is unmatched in the county. The Columbia Association has an archive that hold records pertaining to everything related to Columbia, Rouse, etc. County Rec and Parks (the Heritage division) manages historic sites in the county, including the recent addition of the Harriett Tubman Cultural Center property. You can take classes there in cooking, painting, ballet, and many other things (for a fee), while viewing pieces of county Black history therein.

Those of us who are historians, the type who get lost researching in the stacks as we lose track of time immersing ourselves in old brittle records containing handwriting that’s barely used anymore, are the ones thinking about something very important. We think about the people who go home and share the history they learned at places, and the students writing papers about history that they get exposed to. We are the ones who get bothered by history being inaccurate, and work to change it so that it’s accurate. It’s because we are thinking about how history has always been used and still is.

I finally visited the Tubman center in order to take in the history that was curated and placed there for visitors. Though there is nothing to suggest that Harriet Tubman came to our county on her many trips to free her family members from enslavement (none of her family was in our county), the legend that she came here to help others escape enslavement is a feel-good story that has helped our county tap into the events in the state that celebrate a woman known throughout the world. That helps to put us on the map in that genre, so to speak, even though our county isn’t actually reflected on the state map (link is below). Fortunately for our county, there are many local people who tried to escape enslavement (some succeeded) and there is existing documentation to support it. You won’t see them at the Tubman Center except for Oliver Cromwell Gilbert who was extensively researched by Stefanie Gilbert (his great great granddaughter) and Jody Fernald and published in a 2014 journal, but it’s my hope that that will change in 2023.

Documentation is king with history, and people learn critical thinking skills when they are able to examine things in order to discern what is and isn’t proven by them. It’s a skill I believe to be in alarming decline, and I hope that changes since it affects other aspects of life also. Due to the responses I’ve received from some people I don’t choose to name, I believe some are unaware that history evolves when you discover and learn more, and change makes some uncomfortable. I suspect our programming will step on some peoples’ toes, which under the circumstances is unavoidable. 2022 saw altercations with people and organizations unhappy with the alteration of the local history narrative that our nonprofit has become synonymous with affecting. You wouldn’t think that was a bad thing, yet I’ve received messages that I can’t repeat here and have been told that I’m being called something by county personnel that I choose to not repeat. This is what happens when you try to change things that some are comfortable with and others don’t want to change because of how they are benefiting from it being how it is.

The history in the Tubman center concerning the county’s segregation era is compelling and well-done! I expected no less since the Tubman Foundation folks have been the primary holders and compilers of the materials for decades. I was glad to finally be able to see it, and those curators should be proud that their experiences are there for all of us to learn from. However… everyone who goes there should remember that our understanding of history isn’t static and therefore changes when we learn better. The log cabin/house on Main Street did NOT exist in the 1700s, is not the oldest structure in Ellicott City, and the predecessor congregation to St. Luke did not exist in it in the year 1877. The data in this image is wrong.

They had their own building and continuous land ownership in Ellicott City after they bought land and constructed their own first church building in 1860. They didn’t need to use the log cabin for anything, since they had their own. That church is the oldest Black congregation in Howard County (it is not First Baptist Church in Elkridge), and should be recognized as such. The church trustees later sold the land and building to a Black woman who lived in it for many years. Research/p and documentation uncovered all of that and more, and it’s been widely circulated since February 2022. It’s a great photograph by Donald of the newer church, but the display otherwise contains old inaccurate information from a time when a full investigative inquiry wasn’t performed to try to uncover the truth. It has been done, and no one need think for one day in 2023 that a white European settler built that cabin in the 1700s. Will the data be changed? Maybe not since one of the other nonprofits (HC Historical Society) is who did the display according to the exhibit. 

As I conveyed to the Quaker Friends, I only want history to be accurate for peoples’ consumption. The visitors, residents and students of the county should not be thinking that:

  1. slavery didn’t really happen in our county
  2. our county wasn’t also part of The South, and acted like it in many ways
  3. Blacks didn’t own land in Md before the Civil War in their own names
  4. we didn’t have significant and compelling examples of self-liberation from enslavement by local people who have descendants in the county
  5. our county wasn’t connected to the early civil rights effort
  6. we didn’t have our own housing segregation like it’s reflected in the Undesign the Redline exhibit at the library.

If you do think these things, it reflects that you just haven’t been told differently and you aren’t seeing it reflected anywhere in the county. Yet. The only constant is change, therefore change is the thing to value. See you in this new year (the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) with programming and content based upon all of the research being done in the areas above and more! We’ll be freeing it in 2023!

Marlena,

Executive Director

Link to Tubman byway sites:

Byway Sites

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