Sharing African American heritage

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Robert Friedman
Wylene Burch helped found the Howard County Center of African American Culture, contributing thousands of books, historical artifacts and memorabilia she has collected. The center’s more than 10,000 books are now housed at Howard County Community College.
Photo by Frank Klein

In 1963, Wylene Burch was living in Berlin, Germany, with her husband, an Army officer, and their two small children.

“It was the time of the assassinations of President Kennedy and Medgar Evers and of the civil rights movement. My daughter, DeLace, who was 9 at the time, was old enough to know that something was going on in America,” Burch said. “So I started teaching my children about the civil rights movement and about their African American heritage.”

Fifteen years later, Burch and her family moved to Columbia, Md. She knew that African Americans had lived in Howard County for centuries — Maryland was a slave state until 1864 — but there were no institutions or societies here marking their history.

“When I came to Howard County in 1978, I noticed the history of African Americans wasn’t being preserved,” she said. “So I began organizing for a museum and cultural center with others in the community.”

Burch’s dream of passing on the history of African Americans to future generations — which took permanent hold in those years she was telling her children about their heritage — became a material reality in 1987 with the opening of the Howard County Center of African American Culture.

The center, located in a two-story house on Vantage Point Road, features a museum filled with more than 20,000 artifacts highlighting African American life in Howard County and the contributions of African Americans to the nation and the world. The story of racism and slavery is also touched upon in the museum.

The center’s collection of more than 10,000 books about and by African Americans, as well as periodicals and audio and visual recordings, are now housed at Howard County Community College. An archival center tracing the history of five Howard County Black families also is part of the center’s library at HCCC.

Amassing a collection

Burch, who is the director, curator and fundraiser for the museum and center, contributed heavily to them from her own private collection.

“I started collecting these things — history, music, arts, artifacts, books — for my children,” she said. Soon her home was filled with boxes of historical artifacts, memorabilia and publications.

In her early days in Columbia, she would pack up her car and offer a moveable African American museum and history lesson to schools, churches and community centers around the area.

“I love history, and I believe in passing it on, which I did with the traveling museum and I’m now doing at the cultural center,“ said Burch,. ”I’ve always wanted to have a place like this where I could share [my collection] with lots of people,” she said.

Once the museum was established, other people started making contributions. “We’re still collecting,” she said. “I just learned that a family in Silver Spring has willed me artifacts for the center.”

Among the museum’s intriguing exhibits is one composed of miniature replicas of African American inventions. Burch said she has catalogued some 1,000 inventions by black Americans. These include, among many others, the letter box, golf tee, horseshoe, folding chair, player piano, lemon squeezer, rolling pin and monkey wrench.

Also on exhibit is a wicker wheelchair from 1856; a case of dolls, including Aunt Jemima-type stereotypes; and even boxes of Wheaties and Corn Flakes featuring photos of such great black athletes as Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Serena Williams.

In one exhibit case, a pair of metal slave shackles lies next to a notice of a $75 reward for the capture of a runaway slave named Harriet Green, “a negro girl 16 or 17 years old, a very light mulatto who at a little distance would be taken for white.” The notice is from Simpsonville, a Howard County community.

Burch said that research has identified Simpsonville as a stop on the Underground Railroad, with a safe house Maryland native Harriet Tubman and others used in helping slaves escape. In 2002, her research was included in a book called Seeking Freedom: The History of the Underground Railroad in Howard County, Maryland.

Paintings by African American artists cover the walls leading up to the second floor of the museum, where postage stamps issued for noted black Americans are on display. A children’s library and a meeting room are also located there.   

An educator at heart

As the wife of Army Col. Olger Burch, Jr., Burch spent 30 years living in 22 homes in 12 states and four countries.

A graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge, with a master’s degree from Bowie State College, she taught part-time at different military bases while raising her two children, DeLace and Olger Burch III. (Her son also chose an Army career and became a lieutenant colonel.)

When her husband was transferred to Fort Meade in 1972, Burch starting teaching full-time at Margaret Edmondson Elementary School in Laurel, then went on to Greenbelt Center Elementary School.

In 2002, she was inducted into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to and preservation of the county’s African American culture.

A native of New Orleans, Burch grew up in the then-segregated city in the 1950s. But she was raised, she said, in a black society that offered a strong foundation to many African Americans who were part of it.

“My parents owned their own home, my mother was a college graduate, my dad was in the insurance business, then he owned a grocery, my sister and I finished college. After high school, I made my debut. We had our own social activities, our own churches, I took dancing classes, piano lessons, I didn’t miss anything.

“I had a wonderful life growing up,” said Burch. “New Orleans was a wonderful city.”

Yet racism still reigned in Louisiana. But the civil rights movement was bringing about radical, humane changes in other parts of the country.

At home in Columbia

For example, Columbia in the 1960s became a model for integration. Burch believes that the community now is a leader in the number, per capita, of interracial married couples in the nation.

The first child born in Columbia, in fact, was to an interracial couple. According toNew City Upon a Hill, a book about the history of Columbia by Joseph Rocco Mitchell and David R. Stebenne, Columbia creator James Rouse used the birth as a selling point for the community.

“If black families were eager to move into Columbia, interracial families must have been ecstatic,” according to the authors. They note that Columbia welcomed such couples when the state of Virginia still had anti-miscegenation laws, and there was “little tolerance” in the rest of Maryland for interracial couples.

Burch has become an avid booster of her current Columbia home, since moving here 34 years ago. “I’ve traveled around the world,” she said, “and Columbia has been the best place where I have ever lived. It’s a wonderful community.”

She added, “No one worries about race here. We’re all human beings.”

The Howard County Center of African American Culture, located at 5434 Vantage Point Rd. next to Oakland Manor in the town center, is open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults; $2 for children and seniors. For more information, see or call (410) 715-1921.

The center’s research library and archive is in the Clark Building at Howard County Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway. It is open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays by appointment. The library, which has free admission, can be reached at (443) 518-1460.