McComas Institute is a surviving example of a Freedmen’s Bureau school from the late 1860s. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was created by the federal government in 1865 as part of the War Department. It was charged with assisting newly freed slaves and impoverished whites in the Southern states and the District of Columbia. As a slave-holding, Union border state, Maryland was not included in the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, slavery was outlawed on November 1, 1864 with the adoption of a new state constitution. In Maryland, the Freedman’s Bureau was mainly involved with education and legal matters for both former slaves and the large free black population. Across the state Freedman’s Bureau schools provided new opportunities for public education in a segregated system that had limited facilities for both races in this period.
Constructed in 1867, McComas Institute was named for local abolitionist and tobacco merchant George McComas. It was one of three Freedman’s Bureau schools built in Harford County and remains the most intact survivor. Berkley School (also known as Hosanna School) was a two-story frame structure that included a church and community meeting rooms. Neglect and severe storm damage partially destroyed the building decades ago, but it was restored in 2005 and now houses the Hosanna School Museum. Greenspring (or Hopewell) School burned in 1926, reputedly by the Klu Klux Klan.
McComas Institute looks like the quintessential school house: it is a long, rectangular, wood frame building with an entrance on the short gable end facing Singer Road. A small bell cote sits on the gable peak over the front entrance. The interior is divided into two rooms and a partitioned storage area, with wall-mounted blackboards in the larger of the two rooms.
When the Freedman’s Bureau was discontinued in 1872, McComas Institute became part of the Harford County Public School system. A local Board of Trustees owned the building with the school system contributing an annual rent and repairs. It continued to serve as a “colored” public school until it was closed around 1935. In later years the school was taken over and cared for by the neighboring Mount Zion Methodist Church. McComas Institute serves as a reminder of the complicated history of education for African American Marylanders in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
Deeney, Susan M., and Natalie Shivers, “McComas Institute,” Harford County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1979. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
Weeks, Christopher. An Architectural History of Harford County, Maryland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.