Displaying the scars of slavery Charles Co. man's museum aims to tell 'whole story'

December 01, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Sun Staff Correspondent

POMONKEY -- First, there is the iron ball connected to the chain. Then, the whip handle with its lead core and the yellowing photograph of a black man, his back encrusted with a latticework of scars from the lash.

William Diggs, a short man stooped even further with the weight of more than 80 years, the grandson of slaves, pulls them carefully from a display case. The iron ball, he explains, was shackled to his great-grandfather's leg for the last 20 years of his life. And the whip often "tickled my grandfather's back," he said.

Mr. Diggs, whose grandparents were slaves on a farm just east of U.S. 301 in La Plata, has been operating his Afro-American Heritage Museum in two classrooms on an old Army base here ever since he retired from teaching in 1980.

Surrounded by his personal collection of artifacts that are crammed into display cases, hung from the walls, spread over tables and stuffed in boxes and file cabinets, he tells the stories of Charles County the way his forebears told them, rather than the way the history books tell them. History books, he says, are sugar-coated and leave out a lot.

"If you don't have black people involved in this story some kind of way, then you're just not telling the whole story," he argues. "You bring a child in here and when he leaves, his head's full. You've taught him something."

Mr. Diggs figures he has filled the heads of thousands of youngsters over the years with "things your teacher didn't tell you." They come not only from Charles County schools, but from neighboring Prince George's, St. Mary's and Calvert counties and Northern Virginia as well.

Norma Hurley, a spokeswoman for Charles County schools, calls Mr. Diggs a "treasure" whom people are "lucky to have."

"He does all the things he does with his whole heart," she said. "We can all benefit from that."

Robert Sondheimer, whose fifth-graders from Mount Hope/Nanjemoy Elementary School toured the museum a few weeks ago, said Mr. Diggs is "a wonderful storyteller." He just hopes "the kids respond in a positive way," Mr. Sondheimer added.

The students go on enthusiastically about the quilts that hang from the wall, the dolls with nappy hair and the collection of old-fashioned irons they saw. But they fall silent when asked about their reaction to the whip and the ball and chain.

Finally, Amanda Gilroy, who is white, and Wanda Hart, who is black, chorus: "It was wrong."

Mr. Diggs, who includes the ax-hewn logs from the house where he was born in his collection, starts the lesson with flags.

The flag of Maryland has the same colors as the Baltimore Oriole, he notes. The red and black of the African-American flag represent the "blood that is in us" and the "color of our skin." And the green is there to show that "we all live on God's green earth," he says, smiling.

He moves on to the heavy, 19th century irons -- "Imagine these old black women using this all day to iron the massa's clothes" -- then to the chamber pots that the slaves had to clean and the feather beds and dolls, most of them made from black socks stuffed with rags.

He picks up one doll by its hair and begins shaking it. "Now, ol Mista White Man says I can't be a citizen of this country less'n I have skin like him and long straight hair that blows in the wind," he says. Your eyes are glued on the doll.

"Phooey on ol' Mista White Man. I can't do that. I'll just let my hair grow the way it does."

Mr. Diggs breaks up laughing. "My grandmother and them would sit on the porch and crack their sides laughing about ol' Mr. White Man with this doll," he recalled.

The youngsters rave on about the dolls and the stuffed terrapins, fox, eel and rockfish on one table and the old Victrola on which he plays ancient gospel records.

"When he played that music, he told us we were hearing voices from 100 years ago," marveled Joseph Proctor, one of Mr. Sondheimer's students.

But Mr. Diggs seems more interested in the documents he has amassed.

Under the tables he has files on Matthew Henson, the black man from Charles County who went to the North Pole, and files on the Lincoln assassination.

He insists that Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set assassin John Wilkes (( Booth's broken leg, was in on the plot. His grandmother was a servant at Dr. Mudd's house and told him the story, he said.

Mr. Diggs has lists of slaves that were filed with the Charles County register of wills when a plantation owner died. They are listed by first names, age, trades and appraised value.

He also has court records that show other slave owners renting blacks as if they were power saws or electric sanders, and a

petition to free a slave who had a bad leg and "other distempers" and was of no more use to her owner.

L The slave would be turned out to shift for herself, he said.

"You can hear these things, but if you see the actual thing in a book, then you're seeing something," Mr. Diggs said.

Many of the youngsters who come to his museum know a little of the history of Southern Maryland blacks, he said. But many -- even the black children -- have learned from sugar-coated books, he said.

He is determined to "talk about what my grandfather and my grandmother said about slavery," he said. "Somebody ought to know something else about it. They told me the stories about it. They wanted someone to know what went on."

If children know those stories, he argued, they won't be as susceptible to "all this hate and prejudice" that others teach them.

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