In the upstairs reception room at St. Stephen's African Methodist Episcopal Church in Essex, a glass case contains more than 120 years of history. The display includes the original church building's cornerstone from 1878 and photographs of pastors and parishioners from long ago.
"This church has been rebuilt three times," said local historian Louis Diggs, discussing how much he enjoys that St. Stephen's commemorates its past. "The significant thing is the pictorial references of history upstairs. To me, it reflects the importance that people put on their religion."
Diggs, along with his friend and fellow history buff Lenwood Johnson, will be giving a free bus tour highlighting African-American historical sites in the southeastern area of Baltimore County Tuesday, and St. Stephen's is a highlighted stop .
The bus will make stops in Overlea, Chase, Edgemere and other areas. The neighborhoods are among the 40 African-American communities that Baltimore County has designated as historic, Diggs said.
Diggs, who has written several books about the communities, called them "jewels."
"They represent the diversity of Baltimore County," he said.
Diggs, a Korean War veteran, has been studying the history of African-American communities in Baltimore County since 1992, when he was a substitute teacher at Catonsville High School.
Students in his genealogy class had a hard time finding information about the Winters Lane area. That community became the topic for his first book.
He researched the communities on the tour while writing his latest book, Our Struggles, which he hopes to have published soon.
Another highlight of the tour is the Sharp Street United Methodist Church in Chase, which was built just after the end of the Civil War.
"Those free slaves, the first thing they did was build a place to practice their religion," Diggs said.
There were a limited number of seats still available for the tour, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Seats can be reserved through the Baltimore County Office of Fair Practices and Minority Affairs.
John McGrain, a Baltimore County historian who worked in the county's planning office for more than 30 years, said the tour is a good idea.
"There are many African-American historical places," he said. "It's well worth doing."
Johnson, who also works in the planning office, said residents of the communities often shared information on their history with him.
"It's good for people to know about these communities because some of them are over 100 years old, and the people who live there have kept their communities in good shape," Johnson said.
Diggs and Johnson have taken turns giving free bus tours in connection with the African-American Cultural Festival that is held annually in September in Towson. Diggs said they have also given tours for other groups.
Diggs said he wants his research into African-American communities in Baltimore County to be just a start.
"It has always been my hopes and dreams that someone in the future would pick up from where I left off and go from there," he said.