Nobody knows how long ago the back door of the old Boyds Negro School disintegrated. Maybe it was two years ago, or perhaps 10. Only the sparrows that fly through the space where the door used to be may know.
The old school has no front steps, either. Or back steps. What it does have are weeds. They have poked through and overgrown much of the asphalt that used to cover the front yard.
"It's natural," explained a woman who lives down White Grounds Road. When a building has been abandoned for nearly 15 years, as this one has, "it begins returning to nature."
But this week, after three years of effort, the Boyds community plans to begin formally to reverse the process.
The former Boyds Negro School, a oneroom schoolhouse used from 1895 until 1936 by students between the ages of 6 and 20 is to be sold to the Boyds-clarksburg Historical Societ for $17,000 by Henrietta Randolph, who attended the school as a girl and whose family had owned the building since 1944.
Armed with a $50,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Societ plas to renovate the building into a combined community center and museum that emphasizes the history of Boyd's blacks.
The $17,000 to purchase the building, and the half-acre of ground on which it sits, came from Montgomery County's federal Community Development Block Grant funds for fiscal 1981.
The new community center will be the only one the sleepy town of Boyd's (population 600) has ever had. The museum will be the only one in Montgomery County to concentrate on turn-of-the-century black life in an area that was then all rural and, for the most part, still is.
Restoration of the schoolhouse is expected to begin late this month with the hiring of an architect, and to be finished within a year.
"We're looking forward to having the building more than I can express," said Peg Coleman, vice president of the historical sociey and the spark behind the Negro School project.
So, apparently, is the rest of Boyds -- blacks as well as whites.
For one thing, the restoration may bring construction jobs to a community that needs them badly. Although figures for Boyds alone could not be obtained, unemployment in northern Montgomery County ranged close to 10 percent early this year, double the down-county rate, according to county government reports.
For a second thing, the $67,000 in public money is by far the largest such chunk ever to arrive in Boyds at once -- and local officials hope it becomes a habit. There is no end of needs in Boyds. For example, the community still lacks modern sewer and water service.
For a third thing, senior citizens will be able to conduct their programs in a hall that will hold all 105 Boyds residents who are over the age of 65. For many years, seniors have used the Presbyterian church for their functions, by it is only about two-thirds the size of the planned community center.
But the main effect of rehabilitating Boyds Negro School will probably be to rehabilitate the pride of Boyd's blacks.
A significant side effect may be to entice some younger blacks, who have been leaving the community in search of jobs and excitement, to stay.
Mae Coates, 71, has lived in Boyds almost all her life, and has spent the last 15 years living in a one-bedroom house about 200 yards from the old Boyds School.
But for the 20 years before that, she lived in the school itself.
Although the building had been fitted out with partitions and a wood-burning stove, "it never had electricity or indoor plumbing," Coates explained one recent afternoon as soap operas droned from her living room television set. o
"But I didn't mind. I'm a country girl, and I didn't mind." The most she ever paid in rent was $15 a month, Coates said, "and I didn't mond, that either."
She does mind, however, that so many blacks have left Boyds; (the black population of the town is now about 65, down from a high in the 1920s of about 300). She thinks that the museum will bring them back -- most only for an afternoon, to be sure, but some, she suspects, for good.
Black life in Boyds is "not like it used to be in terms of numbers," said Coates, who used to work as a domestic in Washington and commuted via the B&O Railroad that still stops in the center of town.
"So many in my age group are gone, and everybody else is so busy. And there doesn't seem to be as many programs at the church as there used to be," she said. Indeed, services at St. Mark's Methodist Church, whose members are all black, are now held only every other Sunday.
"But this is a good community, and I think blacks from the city might discover that," said Coates. "It's quiet, and it's close-knit. There's no conflict here."
But there are almost no jobs, either and few modern-day diversions. "i don't notice too many discos down in town," said Carlton Talley, a 43-year-old construction excavator who was born in Boyds and whose mother attended the Negro School.
Boyds doesn't have much of anything else, for that matter.
The Boyds General Store does a thriving business, much of it from Farmers. But the nearest supermarket, drug store and movie theater are five miles away, in Germantown.
Boyds has no newspaper, town government or city hall. To leave a message of community interest in Boyds, you tack it to the wall beside the B&O underpass -- just the way it's been done for the last 100 years.
Perhaps most telling, because of declining enrollment, there are no schools in Boyds any more.
Schoolchildren are bused either to Poolesville High School (11 miles away) or to junior high or elementary schools in Clarksburg (six miles.) The one elementary school in Boyds was closed in 1979, and the community has never had a junior high or high school.
Declining enrollment usually reflects declining population, and according to Merrit Ednie, the town's 35-year-old Presbyterian minister, most of those who have disappeared have been black.
The church day-care center provides a clue, according to Ednie. When it opened 13 years ago, the children were "predominantly black," Ednie said. This year, "we didn't have one."
"Obviously," said Ednie, "the fear is that the museum may open just in time for the black community of Boyds to be a remnant."
Some blacks are also concerned that the museum will tend to glorify the segregated era during which the old school operated.
"There is no question that when I was a kid here, there were jobs I didn't get and friends I didn't have because I was black," said Talley, who serves on the executive board of the Boyds-Clarksburg Historical Society.
"But all of us have seen (Boyds) grow from prejudiced, the way it used to be. We'd like to see the (restoration). . . be one more step in the process. We don't want anybody to say it was good that the Negro School didn't have bathrooms."
Henrietta Randolph, who is selling the school, is a classic example of the two-way "tug" that operates on blacks who were born in Boyds but no longer want to live there.
"You ask me where I'm from, and I say, 'Boyds, Md., Montgomery County,'" said Randolph, 61, a clerk at a K Street brokerage house who has lived in Northeast Washington since the 1930s.
"I'm proud to say I'm from Boyds. But I don't miss living there at all.
Country life is very lonely. Everything always looks like it's at a standstill. You know, it seems like country people say, 'That's the way things were, so that's the way they stay.'"
Still, Randolph feels the restored building "should mean a lot. We can always remember what Boyd's was like. It'll give the older people something constructive, someplace to occupy their time."
Ednie feels that none of it would have happened without Peg Coleman.
"It takes an individual effort like hers," he said. "People in Boyds tend to rally around causes, but everyone tends to be an individual first. For example, it was five years before I was in my neighbor's house. We're not coffeeklatschers.
"Blacks don't seem to be all that enthusiastic about the project, either," Ednie said. "They've hailed it as a great project, but they didn't seem to push. That was Peg."
For Coleman, who is white, some of the motivation came from her realization that "there's always been a black community and a white community in Boyds. It just happened that way. I wanted a project for the (Historical) Society that could bring the two communities together."
For the Maryland Historical Society, the Boyds Negro School is a somewhat unusual project. "The building isn't important architecturally, like most of the Society's projects," said Eileen McGuckian, the society's trustee from Montgomery County. "But we justified it historically and culturally. It has a very important place in that community."
And a very important place in the memory of people who went to school there.
"I remember all my teachers, all the books I read, all the games I played there," said Henrietta Randolph. She has heard many proposals to move the old school over the years. She even had one offer from the county to burn it down, so the land could be used for something else.
"But this is the way it should turn out," Randolph said. "This is what makes a community remember."