The Rev. Gertie T. Williams feels very much at home when she volunteers at the restored Ellicott City Colored School on Frederick Road.
The Howard County native's ease in her surroundings is for good reason: From grades one through seven, she attended a nearly identical two-room schoolhouse for African-American students, located in Elkridge.
So when county officials hit upon the idea of holding an open house Jan. 21 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Ellicott City facility — the first Howard school for black children built with county funds — Williams was the obvious choice to give the invocation, said Jacque Galke, supervisor of the county's heritage program.
"We are so fortunate to have Reverend Gertie to help us reflect on this day," said Galke, who also oversees the Patapsco Female Institute and the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin, among other historic sites owned by the county's recreation and parks department.
"Some of us remember segregation, but she lived it," she said.
The event will also feature a display of photographs, and Baltimore artist Mark Cottman will exhibit his painting titled "African American Inventions."
Docents will be on hand to discuss the school's history and will be joined by student volunteers from Centennial High School in welcoming visitors to the event, which is open to the public.
Williams, who is 76 and retired, said she "always gives praise and honor to God first" when she offers a prayer. To honor the occasion she will give thanks for King's life and his work to establish equality for all people, not just African-Americans.
"It's important that we keep the dream alive," said the widowed mother of two sons and a daughter. "We can't let it die because he did. We need to work to all get along and make the dream work for everybody."
But she won't prepare a speech.
"I offer prayer spontaneously and just go the way God moves my heart," she said.
Williams will also share with visitors "her regular little spiel" as a tour guide on what a school day was like for black children banished by society to the small building with no amenities.
The school, a 1,000-square-foot wood frame building that sits on a knoll across from Rogers Avenue, was in operation from 1880 to 1953. About 10 children per grade attended, and they were split into two groups.
The dilapidated building was repurchased by the county in 1995 and restored with public and private funds, though not much remained of the original structure or its contents. It was rededicated in 2003. Old desks, old books and a blackboard on which "I will do my homework" is written in chalk multiple times fill the room.
Since the school had no electricity or indoor plumbing, teachers relied on a wood-fed potbelly stove for heat and asked students to fetch water from a tributary of the Patapsco River down the hill, she said. Outhouses were in use as well.
"The teachers, who were also African-American, lived in the city and came by streetcar from Baltimore to Main Street, where the Wine Bin is now located. Then they walked a mile and a half to get to the school," Williams said.
"These were dedicated teachers — they had to be," given what they had to work with, she said. "And they made sure that we little black kids got the best education they could give us."
Since there was no playground, students made up games and often brought balls, bats and jacks from home to amuse themselves, she said.
Much of black families' social life centered on their churches since African-Americans weren't allowed inside many places. Williams recalls waiting in the car at the now-defunct Candy Kitchen on Main Street while her mother purchased sandwiches to take home because they weren't allowed to sit down and eat with whites.
Segregation was generally accepted by black children because "our parents sheltered us from some of the hurt, and we really didn't notice," she said.
"At a certain age we knew it, but what could be done about it? That's the way things were.
"When you think about the people who founded America, they didn't want to pay taxes in England, they drove out the Native Americans and they brought slavery here," she said, summing up her view of some of the nation's less-auspicious beginnings. "But dwelling on negativity doesn't change things."
Galke, who grew up in Florida, vividly remembers the separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks when she was a girl.
"That amazed me as a child. I tried the water from the colored fountains because I really wanted to know if it tasted different, which of course it didn't," she recalled.
Cottman, an African-American who left a career as an architectural engineer to become a self-taught artist in 1999, will discuss his work of abstract expressionism at the open house. His acrylic on canvas painting pays homage to 25 African-American inventors, who are credited with discoveries that include the potato chip, peanut butter, dry cleaning and the spark plug.
Inventors include the well-documented, such as George Washington Carver, and many lesser-known names.
"I call it art with a conscious," he said, referring to the educational aspect of his colorful painting. "I would like the viewer to be enlightened about the contributions of African-Americans to the sciences and to be inspired."
Like Williams, he also draws attention to King's efforts on behalf of all Americans.
"His message was we're all equal and we should all be afforded the same opportunities, but we're still not there," he said. "There are a lot of inequalities that start with a mindset that we as a species should evolve away from."
Williams said there have been a lot of changes in how Americans are treated because of people like King and Stokely Carmichael, a black activist from Trinidad who also fought for civil rights in the 1960s.
"They set examples for all of God's children to work toward, but the battle isn't over," she said. "There's still a lot of bigotry and prejudice in the world. You can't legislate minds and hearts. That kind of change takes a while."
Galke hopes to make the open house, which will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., an annual Martin Luther King Day event. She is asking visitors that day to bring a nonperishable food item to contribute to the Howard County Food Bank as a nod to President Barack Obama's push for a national day of service to coincide with the federal holiday.
"This school is a reminder that when you know better, you do better," she said of the county's decision to uphold desegregation in 1965, 11 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools.
"You have to know where you've been to know where you are and where you're going," she said.