Thanks to a man by the name of Louis S. Diggs, the world knows more about the history of African Americans in Baltimore County. His son Frederic Q. Diggs shared fond memories of how it all began.
“After my father retired from DC Public Schools, he became a substitute teacher and discovered the students really didn’t know a lot about the local African American history in Baltimore County,” recalled the younger Diggs. “He took it upon himself to start researching things and sharing his findings with his students. That’s what started it all off.”
Diggs documented the history of every African American community within the county through free bus tours, plaques, and 13 books that included It All Started on Winters Lane, Holding On to Their Heritage, In Our Voices, Since the Beginning, Surviving in America, and From the Meadows to The Point.
The renowned local historian, author, and U.S. Army veteran passed away at Northwest Hospital on October 24, 2022 at the age of 90 after a lengthy illness. Funeral services for Diggs, who founded the Black Writers’ Guild, were held Tuesday, November 15, 2022, at Union Bethel AME Church, 8615 Church Lane in Randallstown, MD.
“The outpouring I have received has been overwhelming,” said Diggs. “So many people have told me my father was a great man and how he uncovered so much history behind so many communities here in Baltimore County. As a child, I remember him sitting at a computer what basically seemed like twenty-four seven in his office doing his research and writing. He loved to tell stories about the communities that he was researching at the time.”
Diggs added, “I remember him telling me about one house which was not too far from where we grew up that had been a stop along the Underground Railroad. He loved talking about those types of things. He was a humble guy who also found time for his grandkids and to be excited about the latest Baltimore Ravens games.”
Diggs, who was a longtime Catonsville resident, was born in Baltimore on April 13, 1932. He attended Douglass High School, leaving school in 1950 to join an all-Black Maryland National Guard unit. Shortly after joining, his unit was federalized to support the Korean War. Diggs saw action in the war from 1950 until 1952. After his first enlistment, he decided to make the military his career, retiring from the U.S. Army in 1970 after 20 years of service. He was most proud of his assignment as Sergeant Major of the ROTC Detachment at the then Morgan State College.
After retiring from the U.S. Army, Diggs took a position with DC Public Schools as a Military Instructor at Ballou High School. He remained with the system until 1989, retiring as the Assistant to the Personnel Director for Staffing. In 1975, he earned his high school diploma, an AA degree in 1976 from Catonsville Community College, was a 1979 Cum Laude graduate of the University of Baltimore, and in 1982, received his Master of Public Administration Degree from the University of Baltimore.
“I would think my father’s greatest legacy are his books and how they just opened up so much history that was previously undocumented,” said Diggs. “Now generations behind him will have access to this information.”
Baltimore County resident and columnist Valerie Fraling said she met Diggs years ago through the AFRAM festival.
“Mr. Diggs really cared about Baltimore’s neighborhoods and the African American community,” said Fraling, who pens a popular column called Living for the Weekend with Valerie. “His life’s work was to encourage and educate people about their communities.”
The Diggs-Johnson Museum on African American History and Heritage opened November 14, 2015. Located in the former Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant (AUMP) Church built in 1887, the Woodstock, MD building was restored through state funding under Diggs’ leadership. The museum is named after Diggs and Lenwood Johnson. Diggs has received many awards for his contributions to African American life in Baltimore County, which also included helping other churches to get grants to restore and save their historic structures. In 2016, Baltimore County established the Louis S. Diggs Award in honor of his work in preserving African American history in Baltimore County.
“I was Mr. Diggs’ nurse when he had open heart surgery,” said longtime friend Betty Stewart who assisted Diggs with his work. “He talked about his books, and the one that he had with him at the time was It All Started on Winters Lane. Because I’m not from Baltimore, I was just captivated by the stories and enjoyed talking to him. A few months after he left the hospital, I walked into Security Mall, and saw all these picture boards up about different communities in Baltimore County. I walked up to the table, and he said, ‘That’s my nurse’, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.”
Stewart said she traveled with Diggs on bus tours and assisted him in various capacities.
“Mr. Diggs had a passion for preserving the history and heritage of African American life in Baltimore County,” she said. “That was his passion. His other passion was to document and put plaques on African American churches that were historic. He wanted to make sure that the importance of these churches was noticed, and that children and their parents knew their history.”
She continued, “I have helped him with a lot of things for more than 20 years, and he was very appreciative. I was the recipient of one of his awards.” Chuckling, Stewart added, “He tried to make it a surprise, but I found out about it anyway.”
Digg’s many books also included North County: The histories of historic African American Communities in Northern Baltimore County and African Americans from Baltimore County Who Served in the Military during World War II and The Korean War.
“As Mr. Diggs documented African Americans soldiers in the cemetery, I can still remember watching him move from headstone to headstone looking for the markings of African Americans soldiers,” recalled Stewart. “A mighty oak tree has fallen. I would imagine he’s in Heaven right now giving out plaques. Now, it’s time for us down here to give him one.”
In addition to his son Frederic, Diggs is survived by sons Blair and Terrance; sister Nettie Holley; sister-in-law Hazel Diggs, 10 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.