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Forgotten black church transformed into museum

Stacy M. Brown | 8/14/2015, 6 a.m.
For years, Louis S. Diggs has researched and documented African-American life in communities in and around Baltimore County while publishing ...
(Left to right) Roger Katzenberg, the Preservation Architect; Louis S. Diggs, President of the Friends of Cherry Hill; Delegate Adrienne Jones, Board Member; and Brian Brystry, President, Progressive Contracting Company, Inc. (Courtesy photo)

For years, Louis S. Diggs has researched and documented African-American life in communities in and around Baltimore County while publishing 10 books about black history. A book he wrote in 2001 helped him and his mentor, Lenwood Johnson, uncover a forgotten black community near Randallstown called Granite.

An undated photo of the Cherry Hill African American Union Methodist Church.

(Courtesy photo)

An undated photo of the Cherry Hill African American Union Methodist Church.

In Granite, Diggs says he and Johnson encountered a distraught woman who pleaded with them to save her old church. The 19th century building that housed the Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church— the area’s only black church in the 1800s—was close to caving in, according to Diggs.

But, thanks to Diggs’ love of black history, the desire to research his own roots and to help others research theirs, and a $400,000 grant secured by Maryland Delegate Adrienne Jones, Diggs and Johnson have restored the building.

The Diggs/Johnson Museum will include more than 9,000 photographs Diggs has collected over the years and numerous artifacts and other collectibles. The museum is scheduled to open on August 22, 2015.

“I was born and raised in Baltimore City and my father left my mom and I and my four siblings when I was a baby and I never spent a day in my father’s house,” Diggs said, in explaining the desire to research his own history. “I spent 20 years in the Army and 20 years teaching and I noticed that the children couldn’t find anything on their history so I started teaching them how to research and they were so pleased to find the bit of history about themselves that they found.”

The new museum will help Diggs and others continue to teach about history and ancestry. He said the building with its own rich history is a great place to start.

The cornerstone of the building is dated 1887 but in Diggs’ research he discovered a news clipping from June 19, 1869 that said a terrible storm passed over Granite and caused a lot of destruction, including damaging the black church. He also found that the Cherry Hill church was built in 1827 but was later abandoned.

“There were the Jesuits from St. Mary’s County who came to Granite to build Woodstock College and they brought their freed slaves to build the college and work there,” Diggs said, chronicling the groups that have been affiliated with the church.

Eventually, freed blacks purchased the property and rebuilt it, and it remained functioning until about the early 1970s.

The church took various names over the years, including African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Congregation, Sacred Heart Chapel of the Church of God and Cherry Hill AUMP.

Diggs says that he and Johnson were able to contact Helen Johnson, the last minister of the Cherry Hill church who pleaded with them to restore the building before she died.

“The idea of converting the church to a museum came from Delegate Adrienne Jones because she knew that I was getting up in age and she felt that the thousands of photographs I have created of African-American life in Baltimore County needed to be protected, stored and shared with the wider community, and that both Lenwood and I would always have a place to share our experiences and researching the history of African-American life and communities in Baltimore County that has never been documented,” Diggs said.

Diggs said the building now has a new floor and roof as well as windows and frames.

A bathroom has been put into the building and the original pulpit has been restored.

With the restoration complete – Diggs said a private donor gave $10,000 for a projector and screen that will be used for lectures and classes – everyone is excited about the grand opening.

“I love black history, I love history,” he said. “Now, we’ll be better equipped to teach others about their history and I’m very excited about this.”