Black historian to receive state honor County author preserves old communities in books

February 25, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Alex Haley drew the map with his classic history of a black family, "Roots," which inspired Louis S. Diggs Sr. of Catonsville to follow the path.

Diggs, 64, a ninth-grade drop-out who holds a master's degree in public administration, has published his second book and is becoming one of Baltimore County's best-known black historians.

Tomorrow, he will be among 12 men and women honored by the state for their contributions to the preservation of Maryland's black history.

"Black children researching black history have had very limited resources. Books like mine expanded them somewhat. Children should have access to the information," Diggs said.

His latest book, "Holding On To Their Heritage," is a history of Piney Grove, in Boring, where, he says, blacks still own land but no longer live; and Reisterstown's Bond Avenue, a thriving enclave to which many of them moved. Diggs' ancestors have lived in that area since the 18th century.

Out of personal interest, Diggs, who grew up poor in West Baltimore, began researching his family history in 1989 from their early years in slavery.

Things began to branch out, however, when the Catonsville library, where his wife, Shirley, worked, asked him to do a Black History Month program in 1992. He interviewed members of four of Catonsville's oldest black families and persuaded them to appear and talk about their histories.

At the same time, with the help of the Reisterstown library and volunteers, he identified about 100 graves at the cemetery of Piney Grove United Methodist Church in Boring, some dating from the early 19th century. He interviewed descendants and the Bulletin of the Maryland Genealogical Society published the results.

For Black History Month 1993, he invited historians from Catonsville's eight black churches, starting with Grace African Methodist Episcopal, which dates from 1868, to narrate their histories. In 1994, he recruited representatives of local fraternal and civic organizations for the program.

A substitute teacher at Catonsville High School since 1990, Diggs taped the programs as permanent oral histories and related stories to students. Their enthusiastic response

motivated him to turn the reminiscences into "It All Started on Winters Lane," an illustrated history about the main street of Catonsville's black community.

Hooked on historical and genealogical research, Diggs decided to focus on Baltimore County's 40 historic black communities -- his "niche in life."

His research on Bond Avenue turned up a black hero, 1st. Sgt. Augustus Walley, a former slave who became an Army "Buffalo Soldier" and won the Medal of Honor for heroism in 1881 against hostile Apaches in New Mexico. Walley is buried at St. Luke's Methodist Church, the community's religious center.

Diggs, who is retired from the Army and from the Washington school system, has met scores of people who have helped with '' information, photographs and other historic material. He also received an inquiry from a young woman who wants to do a history of Turners Station, the old black community adjacent to Dundalk.

"That's what we need, people to take an interest and do the history of other parts of the county," Diggs said.

His third book -- on black enclaves in Chattolanee, near Owings Mills; Cowdensville, near Halethorpe; and the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order of black nuns based on Gun Road -- should be ready for Black History Month 1998, he said.

After that, Diggs plans a literary detour, a history of his first military unit, the all-black 231st Transportation Truck Battalion, which was the first National Guard unit sent to fight in Korea.

Presentations

Author Louis S. Diggs Sr. will present his new book, "Holding On To Their Heritage," at 7: 30 p.m. March 11 at Catonsville library, 1100 Frederick Road. Linwood Johnson, of the Baltimore County planning office, will give a slide presentation on the county's historic black settlements. Tickets: 887-0951.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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