CATONSVILLE – Louis Diggs was teaching students at Catonsville High School how to research their roots when he realized they weren’t coming up with anything, because nothing relevant was written where they could find it.
History books, he says, have left out African-Americans and their role in Baltimore.
“They don’t say there wasn’t any, or there were any. They just don’t say anything at all about it,” he says.
Diggs’ first book, “It All Started on Winters Lane,” thus began as a project to help those kids discover the richness of their heritage.
“I really wanted something for the kids, the African-American kids, to prove that we as African-Americans did have a little bit of something to say about Catonsville,” Diggs says. “After all, we are due our history.”
Since that first book was published in 1995, Diggs has spent much of his time researching and writing books about several of the 40 historically African- American settlements in Baltimore County. He has written three more books: “Holding On To Their Heritage,” “In Our Voices” and “Since the Beginning.” He is working on his fifth.
Along with the narratives he gathers through interviews, Diggs has amassed an enormous collection of historical photographs that grace the pages of his books.
He also lectures and conducts workshops in genealogy research to all sorts of audiences throughout the Baltimore area.
Diggs says the enthusiasm of the children who read his books keeps him going, as do the tidbits of fascinating history he uncovers from interviews and old documents: that Thurgood Marshall’s legal career began with Margaret Williams vs. the Baltimore County Board of Education, in a petition on behalf of Williams, who was fighting to attend her neighborhood Catonsville High School instead of a black school in Baltimore; that a Pizza Hut and Midas Muffler on Route 40 sit on a paved-over black cemetery; that Rolling Road owes its name to slaves. The slaves rolled barrels of tobacco over the old Indian trail down to ships on the Potomac River in Elkridge.
The stories pour out of Diggs, who doesn’t have a single page of notes in front of him.
He cuts an impressive figure, tall and broad-shouldered, but gentle and mild-mannered. His voice is warm and gravelly, well-suited to oration. He’s got a touch of a drawl and the long o’s typical of a Baltimorean accent. In Diggs’ mouth “I’m” sounds like “Ah’m” and “out” sounds like “owte.” His conversations tend to end with the words “thank you now.”
At 69, Diggs has retired twice already, and both times he hasn’t been able to stay retired. In 1970, he retired from the U.S. Army after serving for more than 20 years. That didn’t last, and he began working as a military instructor at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. — retiring from the D.C. Public School system in 1989.
It was after his second retirement that Diggs volunteered to teach students at Catonsville High School how to research their roots. He also realized that he wanted to collect information about his own family’s history for his children and grandchildren.
“I’m a father, and a grandfather, and I know one day my kids or grandkids will want to know something about their family heritage,” he says.
Diggs tries to keep his work from inciting tempers, a difficult task considering the controversy inherent in the stories he has to tell — of slavery, the legacy of racial inequality, heroes ignored for the color of their skin, illegitimate children, segregation.
“I tell kids when I mention these things that there’s no need to get angry about it. You cannot change history,” Diggs says, “but you should know about it.”
Sometimes Diggs has a hard time getting older African-Americans to open up to him.
“They don’t like to talk about it,” he says, “because it hurts.”
Diggs himself recalls drinking from water fountains marked “Colored only,” and using the back door to enter restaurants when Baltimore was still segregated. When he talks about his own experiences as a student, Diggs remains calm, although frustration flares out in the occasional word or phrase.
“When I was in school, they said that after slavery, people in the black community were lazy, shiftless, didn’t contribute anything to anything. That really bothered me,” Diggs says.
During the course of the past decade, this has been a theme that he has sought to refute, and he has done so successfully, documenting scores of initiatives that originated in the black communities of Baltimore.
Diggs describes, for instance, how working black men pooled together their money to create the Catonsville Cooperative Corp. in the late 1800s, which was responsible for creating an amusement park with a religious theme, Greenwood Electric Park, that many of Diggs’ interviewees still remember today.
Kristi Alexander, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Society, says Diggs’ work is important to the entire community. His focus on African-American history in Maryland “provides an area of researched history untapped until now,” she says.
Diggs does everything from the research to the layout for the books he writes. When he decides to write about a community, he begins by looking for a central place to begin his research. Usually, he will turn to churches or community centers and approach elderly members to set up interviews and make arrangements to reproduce their photos.
Diggs says he prefers people who are around 80 years old, although for each community he interviews one younger person (40 or 50 years old, preferably a family historian) for a “younger perspective of the community.”
Once he has begun, Diggs spends his time interviewing, transcribing, scanning photos and writing.
To echo the title of Diggs’ first book, it all started on Dewey Avenue in the Hoes Heights area in Baltimore. Diggs was born there April 13, 1932, to George and Agrada Diggs. He dropped out of Douglass High School in 1950 — having completed only the 10th grade–to join the all-black Maryland National Guard. He earned his GED in Korea, where he fought from 1950 to 1952.
After returning from Korea, Diggs met Shirley Washington. The two tried to elope the night before Diggs was shipped out to Germany, but a snowstorm kept them from making it to Elkton. Diggs wrote Shirley letters every day until he returned and the two married.
In 1957, Diggs was appointed sergeant major of the ROTC detachment at Morgan State College, and he and his wife began raising children. Seven years later, the Diggs family moved to Germany, where Diggs was stationed for three years.
When they returned to the United States, the Diggses moved to Catonsville and built a home on Arunah Avenue, two blocks off Winters Lane, where Diggs and his wife have lived since 1979.
Over the years, Diggs earned an associate’s degree from Catonsville Community College (1976), a bachelor’s degree from the University of Baltimore (1979), and a master’s of public administration, also from the University of Baltimore (1982). He did post-graduate work at George Washington University.
Diggs, who has four sons and nine grandchildren, says his family has been supportive of his efforts to document local African-American history. He’s hoping that eventually his son Terry Diggs will maintain the work he’s done, if he doesn’t have an interest in adding to it.
“He’s doing a beautiful thing,” Shirley Diggs says of her husband’s work. She says she isn’t bothered by the amount of time he devotes to his work; she thinks it’s good for him to keep a schedule and stay active.
“He gets up every morning at 4:30 or 5,” she says. “I call it his second job.”
She adds his work has brought the family closer together: Their sons have helped Diggs to create his own Web page and covers for his books and to resolve computer problems.
“I truly truly believe in what I’m doing,” Diggs says. “I’m deeply concerned that our youth, the youth of the future, will not know our history in these small communities.” Diggs was so concerned that he founded the Black Writers Guild of Maryland as a support system for African-American writers; the group was awarded nonprofit status last year.
Diggs plans on applying for a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for Arts to help people in other areas who want to document the history of their communities.
“It’s so needed,” Diggs says, shaking his head. “African-American children need to know our history.”