African-American cemeteries in the southwestern portion of Baltimore County that are often overlooked by area residents may soon be receiving some special attention.
Historian Louis Diggs, who has authored 10 books about black history in Baltimore County, is currently working on his 11th book, in which he will discuss the history of cemeteries such as the Mount Zion Cemetery in Lansdowne and Harristown Cemetery in the Winters Lane community of Catonsville.
"I strongly believe that young people should know their history," Diggs said as he stood in a wooded area at the end of Harristown Road in the Winters Lane community.
Diggs was standing in a cemetery where slaves from the Harris and Winters families were buried. The site is in a small, residential area off Winters Lane, a short distance from the noise and motion of the heavy traffic that flows up and down Baltimore National Pike.
That cemetery will be included in the book, along with three other cemetery sites in the Catonsville and Arbutus areas, he said.
Finding the Harristown cemetery is no easy task. You must walk behind a large residence at the end of Harristown Road to the wooded area where some gravestones are barely visible. Remnants of broken stones are also found in the woods.
Diggs said between eight and 10 headstones are in the secluded wooded area. Among them is one that marks the grave of Annie E. Harris, who was born in 1858 and died in 1923 in Harristown, the oldest black community in Catonsville.
"It's the most neglected cemetery in the county," he said, searching through pine needles and orange leaves for headstones that are part of the Harristown cemetery.
In 2011, when the large house was built, Diggs fought to see that the gravestones weren't destroyed while trees were being cut in the woods.
"We wanted to have it for community use," Diggs said.
In Lansdowne, the Mt. Zion Cemetery is on busy Hollins Ferry Road, next door to Lansdowne High School and across the street from the Lansdowne Shopping Center.
While collecting information for his book, Diggs has visited the cemetery and documented the hundreds of gravestones on the sloping hill across from Hillcrest Park and the Lansdowne Library, which took him months, he said.
Some of the graves are marked only by wooden sticks placed in the ground with the names of the deceased penned in black marker while other, more traditional, markers are worn and faded from the effects of years of wind, rain and weather.
Little information is available about the cemetery in historic records and from those who manage the site, including the year it began and how many are buried there. It is now managed by the Mount Zion Cemetery Association for the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) Church, said Rev. Charles Sembly, pastor of the Union Bethel A.M.E Church in Randallstown.
The church played a significant role in African American history, according to Willa Banks, a historian and museum educator at the Benjamin Banneker Museum and Historical Park in Oella.
"It was the first independent black church that broke away from the Methodist Church in the late 1700s during the Enlightenment," Banks said.
Two of the church's earliest bishops, Daniel Alexander Payne and Alexander Wayman, are buried at Mount Zion. The two men served as the sixth and seventh bishops of the A.M.E. church, respectively. Their headstones, hard to read due to age, sit near the edge of the cemetery closest to Hollins Ferry Road.
"Bishops have the responsibility of overseeing the district over which they preside," said Rev. Charles T. Sembly, pastor of the Union Bethel A.M.E. Church in Randallstown and historian of the 2nd Episcopal District. "We value, of course, all of our members. But these men held the highest office of the episcopacy."
Payne, who was born in 1811, was the first African American to head a university when he named president of Wilberforce University in 1856, according to the Metropolitan African Episcopal Methodist Church website. An abolitionist, educator and historian, he established a school for black children in 1829 at the age of 19 in South Carolina, but was forced to close it when legislation passed in 1835 amended the law relating to slaves and free blacks, the website says. He was a leader in the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, a group that helped slaves escape to Canada.
Wayman, born in Caroline County in 1821, became the church's seventh bishop in 1864. He authored two books: "My Recollections of African M. E. Ministers, or Forty Years' Experience in the African Methodist" and "Cyclopaedia of African Methodism", which are historical accounts of the A.M.E. church.
Diggs, 83, said he was caught off-guard when he learned the two prominent figures are in the Lansdowne cemetery.
Diggs said he would have expected both men to be buried at one of the A.M.E. churches in the county, such as Grace A.M.E Church in Winters Lane, Mt. Gilboa A.M.E. Church in Oella or Union Bethel A.M.E. Church in Randallstown.
"Because of their significance in the A.M.E. church, I'm surprised they were buried in that cemetery," he said.
Both men were initially buried in the Laurel Cemetery in Baltimore City on Belair Road, records show.
In that cemetery, more than 5,000 are buried, including many prominent members of Baltimore's African American community. It was bulldozed and turned into a shopping center in the 1950s, according to an 2000 article in The Baltimore Sun.
According to the article, the remains of 300 were moved to a new cemetery in a cornfield in Johnsonville in Carroll County.
But information about how and why others, including such important historical figures as Daniel Payne and Alexander Wayman, ended up at the Lansdowne grounds remains a mystery.
Diggs said his first book, "It All Started on Winters Lane," was the first to document black history in Baltimore County.