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Giving African-American history a home in Baltimore County

It's easy to miss the little two-story, boarded-up house behind the Historical Society of Baltimore County in Cockeysville.

Known as "the Pest House," it was once a haven for patients suffering from contagious diseases, such as smallpox. Built in 1872, it's been empty for decades.

But efforts to convert it into a research center for county African-American history would take the old stone building beyond its dreary past into a brighter future, provided fundraisers can obtain more than $300,000 for the renovation job.

Lead organizer Louis S. Diggs, for whom the center would be named, has written a dozen books on early African-American life in the county, exploring the history of Piney Grove, Turners Station, Catonsville, and Belltown in Owings Mills.

Past historical society president Glenn T. Johnston said he was immediately impressed with Diggs' books.

"He was an amateur historian who did history according to professional standards," said Johnston, a Stevenson University archivist and adjunct professor of history. "That's a rare commodity. It became clear to me that we needed a place that could talk about the history of African-Americans."

Johnston thought the old building — Diggs says it was built of stones from the Texas, Md., quarry where African-Americans worked — could be that place.

Diggs wasn't so sure. "It scared me," he said, "and doubly scared me when they said the inside was a wreck."

Nestled among trees and greenery, the building's insides include rotted walls, exposed ceiling and floor beams, and graffiti-tagged doors, according to photos. A structural review determined that it was sturdy enough for an overhaul.

The remodeled building would include a conference room and main offices. Diggs can visualize the patrons: students, a genealogy study group, a local branch of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, a writer's guild. He'd like to start construction next year and applied earlier this year for a $100,000 grant.

Diggs' own interest in county history came from working as a substitute teacher at Catonsville High School in the early 1990s.

"When it came to the black children that lived in the Winters Lane community of Catonsville, they were unable to turn a paper in because they couldn't find anything on the history of the community," Diggs told The Baltimore Sun in 2008. "These children were disappointed, and they asked me to help them find the history of their community. I couldn't say no to them."

His first book, "It All Started On Winters Lane," chronicled the founding families of Catonsville. He's been able to publish subsequent books with his own money and cultural grants.

Diggs is well regarded in the county, but many people are likely unaware of the fundraising campaign, said Del. Adrienne Jones, a supporter.

"The challenge is getting the word out about the importance of this facility," Jones said. "People need to know about this history and how they can be a part of bringing this important aspect of Baltimore County history to light. I think if they find out they can be a part of this, there will be that buy in."

For now, Diggs is focused on raising enough money to complete the first floor. He's organized a nine-night cruise in January to the Bahamas and hopes that local businesses will contribute funds as well.

While the research may be housed in its own building, it is county history, Johnston said.

"It's our history. It's our community. It's our county."

raven.hill@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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