Growing up as a Columbia ‘pioneer’
By KEVIN NAFF
The reputation of Columbia, Md., as a racially integrated place was tested early, just after its founding in June 1967.
It was one year later in June of 1968 that segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace held a rally at Merriweather Post Pavilion in support of his presidential campaign. New Columbia residents, including some African Americans enticed to move there because of founder James Rouse’s promise of integrated housing, were upset. Some called for the rally to be cancelled.
But not Rouse.
“I am convinced that the fabric of our country is so true that we have the capability of weathering demagogues,” Rouse said, according to the Baltimore Sun. “Only through exposure have they been suffocated.”
Rouse wanted to “capitalize on the contrast between Wallace and Columbia,” the Sun reported at the time. He asked, ”Might not this be a creative experience for Columbia?”
Ultimately, Wallace spoke to a crowd of his Confederate flag-waving supporters, as Columbia residents organized a counter rally across town. The community response — passionate, informed, open — reflects my experience growing up in the new city sandwiched between Baltimore and Washington.
My parents moved to Columbia in 1974; early residents were called “pioneers” lured by Rouse’s grand dream of a new American city that would be a “garden for growing people.” His vision included racial integration during a tumultuous time in the civil rights movement. It included all, regardless of income or social status or religion. In fact, many Columbia residents worshipped in “interfaith centers,” in which a Catholic Mass might be held down the hall from a Jewish service at the same time. Even our mailboxes were designed to bring people together — communal boxes that became daily destinations and places for neighbors to meet.
Rouse’s dream included a deep respect for the environment and an appreciation for fitness and the outdoors. Columbia residents enjoyed access to parks, endless miles of paved bike paths, health clubs, neighborhood swimming pools and more. The town’s schools would be the envy of the country and, to this day, Howard County’s public schools are still ranked among the best.
I edited our monthly newspaper at my high school, Hammond High’s “Bear Press.” We tackled controversial and sensitive subjects like teen suicide. We studied foreign languages, reading French authors in the original text and chatting with foreign exchange students over progressive dinners. It was an academically challenging curriculum, before the days of demonizing education and dismissing curious students as “elitist.” Teachers constantly pushed and challenged us. My teachers at Hammond — Sherry Conklin for English and journalism; Karen Dunlop for French; and Kathleen Nawrocki for government and history — were the best I ever encountered.
There were even a few openly gay and bisexual students, which was brave and rare given the fear and hatred unleashed by the growing AIDS epidemic. When my decidedly alternative friends and I delivered a choreographed performance of “Kung Fu Fighting” at the high school talent show complete with a drag component, no one batted an eye. I graduated from high school in 1988, long before the days of Gay-Straight Alliances.
Still, those of us who grew up in Columbia had friends of all backgrounds from the beginning of first grade — different religions and races and economic situations. Subsidized apartments and upscale single-family homes were built within a stone’s throw of each other. And those streets were named after works of literature, odd names like “Greco Garth” and “Deep Smoke.” Neighborhoods were, in turn, named after the authors behind the street names, hence Longfellow, Dickinson and Hawthorne.
In our cynical times, polluted with the crass cruelty of social media attacks, all of this nostalgia sounds naive and Pollyanna. But it wasn’t that way for those of us who lived it and can now look back and appreciate the laudable goals that Rouse set out for himself and the residents of his city.
Was it perfect? Of course not. But after moving away to attend college at Penn State and encountering a roommate who had never met a black person, I quickly realized how lucky I was to have grown up in Columbia.
As Columbia celebrates 50 years, I hope its current residents remember James Rouse and his vision. As Rouse put it, “the only valid ultimate purpose of any civilization is to grow better people; more creative, more productive, more inspired, more loving people.”
This Millennial realized hometown’s appeal after she left
By RASHANNA LEE
My parents moved to Columbia in 1993. My mother had just graduated from Howard University and was expecting my older sister. The choice to raise children in Columbia was a deliberate, and arguably difficult, choice for my parents. My father lived all over the world, but has deep roots in Boston while my mother is from the Bronx.
They struggled between the idea of raising city kids like they were, or taking advantage of the opportunities the suburbs offered. One of the things that Columbia is known for is its school system. My mom was a first-generation college graduate and for that reason she made education the determining factor in where she decided to raise her kids.
When I was young, I wasn’t aware of the history or the notoriety associated with Columbia, but I certainly took advantage of the benefits. My elementary school was Phelps Luck and it was such an enriching and diverse place to get my formative education. I had friends of all races and religions and my teachers were diverse as well. This taught me from an early age about being tolerant and I learned that all people are worthy of respect, regardless of what they look like.
As I moved on to middle and high school, the emphasis on tolerance and respect only intensified. I graduated from Howard High School in 2014 and one of the things that sticks out to me about my high school experience was how nice (generally) everyone was to each other. There were strict, zero-tolerance policies on bullying, and support groups like the Gay-Straight Alliance and black female empowerment groups. The kids weren’t perfect, but I would say we accepted and encouraged individuality at the very least.
My relationship with my hometown, like many relationships, had ups and downs. As I got older, the repetitive and seemingly predictable nature of Columbia combined with classic teen angst caused me to resent the upbringing that my parents worked so hard to give me. I hated the familiar feeling of Columbia. I started going to New York City and exploring D.C. on weekends and I wanted a taste of metropolitan life. I wanted to be edgier.
It wasn’t until the first weekend I came home from college at Penn State in central Pennsylvania that I really valued what I had growing up. I remember getting off Route 100 and feeling relieved that I entered the bubble of familiarity I had grown to hate so much before. As I drove into my neighborhood and saw all the different faces and types of people that were able to exist in such a relatively small city, I was thankful.
When James Rouse founded Columbia in 1967 he had a vision. He wanted Columbia to be a place where people of all religions, races, socioeconomic statuses and ethnicities could live in harmony. As I walk the quiet streets of Columbia I realize that I am proof of the success of his vision. Growing up here has allowed me a certain sensibility and sensitivity that my friends from other towns and cities don’t have or don’t quite understand.
Columbia has grown exponentially since I was growing up. I can remember picking pumpkins and riding horses on various local farms that are now townhouses or shopping centers. Although the size of the city has changed, the spirit of it has not. I see bumper stickers, flags and advertisements for community groups pledging support for people of all walks of life.
As the world has become more open minded and tolerant, so has Columbia. It’s a place that grounds me when my world has become too big and I need to come back down to earth. When I’m home, I see the good in people as it is exemplified in the genial and community-oriented spirits of the people around me. That is a powerful thing.