Recording the histories of black communities

Author: Louis S. Diggs has finished his latest book about African-Americans in Baltimore County.

February 15, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

At a time when slavery was still legal in Maryland, two African-American families lived and owned land in Oella in western Baltimore County.

"I just found that amazing," said Louis S. Diggs, a self-made genealogist and historian who has spent nearly a decade studying and writing about African-American communities in the county.

The presence of free blacks in Oella is one of the findings in Diggs' latest book, Surviving in America, which traces the roots of African-Americans in the Patapsco Valley.

With the book, his fifth, the retired Catonsville resident has combed through and documented half of the black communities designated historic by the county.

His formula is to cull oral histories from residents, collect hun- dreds of photographs and research the community history.

"He is the answer to our prayers," county historian John McGrain said. "Nobody was writing about African-American history in Baltimore County. And he is someone who can get people to talk to him."

This time, Diggs, 69, a former personnel administrator in Washington, zeroes in on the communities of Oakland Park Road, Relay, Oella, Halethorpe, Granite, Church Lane and Winands Road. The father of four said he is often surprised by what he finds.

He describes being bowled over to learn of the two black families living in Oella in the late 17th century, years before Benjamin Banneker, the community's "black son of science," rose to fame. Descendants of the families still live there, and Diggs interviewed one -- Zola Cryenian "Susan" Saunders -- for the book.

Granite's `army of slaves'

Diggs also learned of a thriving "army of slaves" that lived in the Granite area between 1700 and the Civil War and likely helped quarry rock for such structures as the Washington Monument and the Library of Congress in the District of Columbia. The black community in Granite has only two African-American families remaining, Diggs said.

"Who would imagine an army of slaves up there?" he asked.

Halethorpe stood out, Diggs found, because it had no black church. Most churchgoers walked to nearby Elkridge or traveled to Baltimore. "That's the first community I've run across with no church," Diggs said.

In researching the Church Lane community, Diggs discovered links to the Underground Railroad through an interview with Ruth Rogers Dorsey.

Dorsey grew up near a stream on Windsor Mill Road, where she heard older folks talking about the tunnels that hid slaves. "I imagine it was very dangerous for black people to go near those tunnels when the slaves were hiding in them because, who knows, if the white people caught the free blacks with the slaves, they would probably be enslaved again," Dorsey said in the interview.

As with his previous works, Diggs' 203-page book contains a plethora of pictures -- more than 200 -- of black families.

Since publishing his first work in 1995, Diggs said, he has accumulated 5,000 photographs.

"There are pictures galore, scads of them," McGrain said. "And I thought African-Americans were too poor to have their pictures taken."

Diggs began studying black communities while working as a substitute teacher at Catonsville High School.

Students asked him to research their community, Winters Lane, which was known as the black Main Street.

The first book was in 1995

The result of that research, It All Started On Winters Lane, was published in 1995 with the help of state grants. His last three books have been published with the aid of county grants.

Diggs suffered a heart attack last year and had triple-bypass surgery. But that hasn't slowed him down.

With publication of the new book last week, Diggs has eight speaking engagements scheduled at libraries and before local groups.

And he has a Web site:

Having covered the west and half of the north county, Diggs secured county support recently to pursue his sixth work, which will focus on five mostly eastern communities, including Turners Station.

"He's well on his way to No. 6," said Lenwood Johnson, a county planner who wrote the foreword to the new book. "It's history that would not be noted anywhere, and it's done by someone in the community."

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