Bessie Bordenave is Vice President on the Board of Directors for the Ridgely’s Run Community Center, President of the Harriet Tubman Foundation, and chair of the Harriet Tubman Advisory Council.
Ms. Bordenave is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who was born and raised in the town of Guilford in Howard County, MD. She was a part of the class of 1962 at Harriet Tubman High School, where she exclaims, “I loved going to Harriet Tubman High School. We felt like we were a family.”The school was Howard County’s last all-black high school. Each time Ms. Bordenave enters the building, she’s filled with nostalgia “It’s like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I click my heels,” she says. “It’s like coming home.”
Ms. Bordenave was aware that Harriet Tubman was distinctly different from all-white schools. She remembers the used books with missing and torn pages, and the hand-me-down desks from white schools. She says students took extreme care to preserve their books and surroundings because they had no idea when — or if — they would receive replacements.
“In spite of not having the newest books and resources, it made me appreciate what I had,” she says. “The teachers and administration took an interest in all students making sure that they got the education that they deserved.” “I was able to get to the White House from my little town of Jessup,” says Ms. Bordenave.
Recognizing that she was at a disadvantage always made Bordenave strive harder. Bordenave went on to Atlantic Business College in Washington, where she specialized in shorthand and typing. That led to a 51-year career with the federal government. During her career, she has worked at the White House during the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration; served as the Administrative Assistant to Commissioner Benjamin L. Hooks, when he served as a Commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission; served as Confidential/Administrative Assistant to Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, when he was the Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and worked in Los Angeles, California, for the Social Security Administration as a Contact Representative, Field Representative and Supervisor.
When she retired from her position as a telecommunication analyst with the Federal Communications Commission, she was able to dedicate more time to her nearly 30-year effort to preserve the memory of the Harriet Tubman School. Ms. Bordenave began collecting memorabilia in 1990. She’s tracked down every yearbook except from the class of 1954, which apparently didn’t have one. She also has various code of conduct booklets issued to teachers, as well as employment applications from aspiring teachers accompanied by their photographs. She has gone to libraries and received information from as far back as 1948 [the year the school opened].
The Harriet Tubman School is situated near a cave off which is believed to have been a hiding place for runaway slaves who were being led to freedom by Tubman along the Underground Railroad. The nearby Locust United Methodist Church was part of the escape route and was visited by Tubman, according to Ms. Bordenave.
The red-brick building on what is now Harriet Tubman Lane opened as a high school in 1949, when Columbia was known as Simpsonville. While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregated schools in 1954, Howard County was slow to integrate its schools. The Tubman school remained all-black for another 11 years.
Ms. Bordenave served as advisor and co-advisor for the Howard County NAACP Youth Council. She has served as the State Advisor for the Maryland State NAACP Youth & College Division, as Adult Representative for Region VII on the NAACP National Board of Directors, and Vice President of the Howard County NAACP adult branch. She has also served on the Board of Directors for Preservation Howard County.
Ms. Bordenave loves sharing the Black history of Howard County, especially the history of the Harriet Tubman High School.
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