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History from obscurity; Voices: Recollections gathered by a Catonsville author relate the past of black neighborhoods founded during slavery.


Louis Diggs parks his truck at the vast graveyard that is Arbutus Memorial Park, and he points across the street to an aging church. Propped up on one end by wooden beams, it is a mostly overlooked beacon for a little-known neighborhood that has existed since slave days.

"Ninety-nine percent of the African-Americans who come to this cemetery to bury their dead don't know that this is an African-American community," Diggs says. "Everybody knows the cemetery, but nobody knows that this is the entrance to Cowdensville.

"The book," he says, "will change that."

The book is "In Our Voices," Diggs' third volume in a series that celebrates -- and in some cases unearths -- the history of some of Baltimore County's historic black enclaves. After writing about black history in Catonsville, Reisterstown and rural northwestern Baltimore County, Diggs turns his attention to the tiny neighborhood dubbed Cowdensville.

Did you know that a lawyer who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice once argued the case for school integration on behalf of a Cowdensville girl?

"It was like I, as a young Black girl, could not have hopes and dreams of becoming someone significant in my adult years, other than just having babies," former Cowdensville resident Margaret Williams Rose, 77, recalls in the book. " [M]y father hired a young lawyer by the name of Mr. Thurgood Marshall to see if I could be registered in the White school up in Catonsville."

That was 1935, and Marshall lost that case. But some say the effort helped shape the legal strategy that two decades later led to the Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation.

In his new book, Diggs also presents "remembrances" from elderly residents of Chattolanee, an equally obscure neighborhood in the Greenspring Valley; and from the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a black teaching order with a motherhouse near Arbutus.

Diggs has all but cemented his role as the leading chronicler of black history in Baltimore County.

"If anybody else is working at it that earnestly, we haven't met them," said John W. McGrain, the Baltimore County government's official historian. "He's really doing what we had hoped someone would do. We had gathered odds and ends and little facts and put them on cards, but we had no unified history."

McGrain said Diggs has been able to do what white historians have been unable to do: get elderly blacks from Baltimore County to talk to the video camera or the tape recorder and candidly recall the old days and places.

"He's a genial person, and he gets people to talk to him. Country people sometimes clam up," McGrain said. "He just goes and visits people, and the next thing you know they're telling the stories."

Louis S. Diggs, 66, is a story in his own right. Raised in the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, he quit school in the 10th grade and joined an all-black National Guard unit. He saw action in Korea from 1950 to 1952 and made the military his first career.

Along the way, he married a woman from Catonsville, and eventually the couple and their children came to live on Winters Lane, black Catonsville's Main Street. After retiring from the Army in 1970, he became a military instructor at a public school in Washington, D.C.

By 1982 he'd earned a master's degree in public administration. In 1989, he retired from his second career as assistant for staffing to the D.C. school system's director of personnel. He began to research his family history, tracing his roots to the Piney Grove area in the county's rural northwest.

Around that time, he began to work as a substitute teacher at Catonsville High School. He found that the students knew little local black history. The information wasn't easy to find.

"They said, 'Mr. Diggs, we know it's out there. Why don't you help us get it?' " he recalled. He met the challenge. Interviews with members of four of Catonsville's oldest black families led to a Black History Month program at the local library and, eventually, to his first book, "It All Started on Winters Lane."

Seeking to shed light on more of Baltimore County's 40 historic black enclaves, he next wrote "Holding On To Their Heritage," in which he traced his family's roots to the Piney Grove area near Boring. That book also looked at the history of Bond Avenue, a black community in Reisterstown.

By then, he was on his way to assembling a collection of 1,500 vintage photographs. On the few occasions when his amiable manner wasn't enough to gain a subject's cooperation, the photographs were. People saw his photos mounted on boards and displayed at the county's annual African-American festival and wanted their families to be represented.

With a $7,000 grant from Baltimore County's Office of Community Conservation, Diggs set to work on his third book.

He investigated the history of Chattolanee, a black community of only a few houses in the Greenspring Valley. The community was established by white estate owners who helped find homes for their workers after slavery ended.

Members of these families later worked at a hotel and resort, or as domestics for the wealthy valley families. Some of Chattolanee's residents are members of Diggs' extended family.

While promoting his books, Diggs found that few people knew of the county's black enclaves. In his new book, he writes that Cowdensville is a perfect example.

The community is tucked behind the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. No one is sure how the neighborhood got its name.

Diggs finds that not many people can identify the area -- not until he mentions the church across Sulphur Spring Road from the black cemetery. With the help of $80,000 in state and county government grants, the Cowdensville AME Church building is being stabilized.

It seems a symbol of government's new approach to preserving communities that it historically ignored.

"Years ago, they wouldn't even listen to you," Diggs said. "Attitudes have changed remarkably over the years. When you make a community strong, you make yourself strong."

Louis S. Diggs is to lecture and sign copies of "In Our Voices" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Catonsville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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