By Lyna Bentahar
Special to The Sentinel
UPPER MARLBORO – Officials and residents spoke out in a town hall meeting on Aug. 13 against the Prince George’s County Council’s vote to pass a minor amendment that would allow it to reexamine the historical designations of the Upper Marlboro Primary and High School, which sit on Elm Street in front of Schoolhouse Pond.
Evelyn Stephens, a resident whose property is just up against the Upper Marlboro Primary School, brought to the town hall’s attention the amendment that passed on July 23.
The elementary school and high school were both all-white schools, built in 1896 and 1921, respectively. The town’s African American high school, the old Frederick Douglass High School, resided in the building that Upper Marlboro High School replaced. That building has since been destroyed, and the property now holds the courthouse garage.
“It would sadden my heart to see that building destroyed,” said Margaret Bush, an army veteran and Stephens’s daughter. “If you did something like that, what keeps the county from (de-designating) any other historical building in this town?”
Bush added that if the property were to change in any way, it should be a decision made by Upper Marlboro, rather than the county. Officials said during the meeting that Upper Marlboro had made several requests to the county in the past to have ownership of the property transferred over to the town.
The property also contains the resting place of Dr. William Beanes, who incidentally caused Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 1814, Key, Beanes’ lawyer, was drawn to Baltimore following his arrest at Fort McHenry.
During the council meeting, county officials said the cemetery would not be disturbed should the schools be demolished.
“As far as I’m concerned, the county has let the town down as far as letting the building go to wreck and ruin for the last 20 years,” said Linda Pennoyer, town commissioner and treasurer. “I don’t know what their ultimate purpose (with de-designation) is.”
The county has made multiple attempts to remove the buildings on the property. In 2013, the Washington Post reported that county officials had planned for 18 months to destroy the buildings and replace them with a family justice center and a headquarters for the sheriff’s office before realizing that they were historical sites.
In a Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) meeting in 2018, Sheila Adams, administrative judge of Prince George’s County’s Circuit Court and the 7th Judicial Circuit of Maryland, proposed to remove the building and replace it with new county school.
Neither party believed renovations were suitable for their visions.
“I think there a number of better uses for that building that can be effectuated without tearing the building down,” said Town Commissioner Kai Bernal-LeClaire. “The county would be doing a disservice if they remove or destroy the building for any purpose.”
Joe Hourcle, a former town commissioner, held concerns that the county would tear down the building only to realize that the property was not suitable for any new structures.
“It’s just foolish for anyone to keep trying to tear it down and force something in there that doesn’t belong,” said Hourcle.
Councilmembers during the hearing did not go as far as to determine what would replace the two schools after the de-designation process.
“Anytime you remove the historic status from a building in the county, there should be a clear and compelling reason to do so,” said Bernal-LeClaire. “And that should be communicated in advance of any vote to take away that status. The county should be transparent in whatever purpose it has.”
“My understanding is they chose a procedural method for voting to proceed to remove the historical status of the buildings that was essentially the least public method they could choose,” he added.
In a note published by the Town of Upper Marlboro’s official site, the HPC called the choice by the council to subvert normal legal procedures to destroy the historical buildings one motivated by the fact that the buildings are “inconveniently located.” The HPC also questioned the timing of the vote: just before the council’s summer recess, “when there are few watchdogs around.”
“(The property) has a history well past the school,” said Helen Ford, who previously served as the president of the board of commissioners for 18 years and was a student at both schools. “I think about the history that’s connected to that property, and if there’s anything historic in the town, that (school) is something that certainly should be kept.”
Legislative officer Karen Zavakos suggested that residents and the Town of Upper Marlboro give their input to the county council. On Sept. 17, the county is holding a public hearing on the proposal to remove the schools’ historical designations.