Firsthand look at county's oldest black communities

The Baltimore Sun

They saw well-preserved homes built nearly 100 years ago for residents whose children weren't allowed to attend nearby schools. They learned of the modest cabins that black steelworkers had renovated brick by brick into solid cottages. They passed century-old churches that endure at the heart of long-established African-American neighborhoods.

As their tour bus drove through parts of Baltimore County's east side, the 60 people aboard heard stories about the area's history from Louis S. Diggs, 76, a self-published author of nine books on African-American life in the county.

"People don't know our history, and showing it is a good way to share it," said Diggs, who has researched some 40 historically black communities throughout the county. He said he hopes last week's excursion, organized with the help of the county's Office of Fair Practices and Community Affairs, would be first of a series of free bus tours of historic neighborhoods this year.

"I am learning a lot," said Queenesther Russell of Turners Station, who wanted to see areas steeped in black history. "As a people we endured a lot, but we stuck together. These communities show how we have survived."

In the first part of the tour, the bus meandered along tree-lined streets in Overlea, where nearly a century ago, the Cherry Heights Realty and Construction Co. developed a 24-acre parcel near Belair Road. Diggs had unearthed a 1910 newspaper advertisement offering the lots "to the colored people of Baltimore at reasonable prices and on the most reasonable terms." In his books, filled with oral histories, Diggs has included memoirs of the first Cherry Heights residents.

He pointed to Hazel Avenue, where Selma M. Jackson, who died last year at 92, was born and lived nearly all her life. In an interview with Diggs, she had spoken of how white and black children would play baseball together and fly kites on the fields at Fullerton School. She spoke also of her dismay that she was not allowed to attend that school and instead had to travel miles on a bus to Dunbar Elementary in the city.

"There were no schools here for black children," Diggs said. "Some went to a small church on Belair Road, but eventually most had to make long bus rides to attend classes."

From Overlea, the bus traveled east to Essex. As they rode down Back River Neck Road, Diggs pointed to rows of modest brick homes, where many of those who had worked in the steel mills at Sparrows Point had once resided.

"Every Friday, when the men got paid, they would buy a load of bricks," he said. "When they got enough, they upgraded their homes with brick walls."

The tour turned onto Hopewell Avenue, where new homes sit beside well-maintained World War II-era abodes and where First Baptist Church of Back River is thriving in its 104th year. Several in the tour group noted the numerous Baptist churches, many of them with impressive newer edifices standing near humble buildings that marked their beginnings.

Freed slaves often came north after the Civil War, said Lenwood Johnson, a Baltimore County planner who shared tour directing duties with Diggs. Decades later, Baptist missionaries followed them and founded churches in the African-American enclaves. Johnson listed many of those congregations that are still growing today, including Mount Olive in Towson and Morning Star in Catonsville.

Ruth Quinn, a researcher at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she was struck by how many of the communities were clustered around churches.

Betty Stewart said the information gathered on the tour would help as she volunteers at the Benjamin Banneker Museum in Catonsville.

"I love all this history!" Stewart said. "Trips like this make all of us learn and appreciate each other."

The tourists stopped for lunch at Shiloh Baptist Church in Edgemere.

"Freed slaves started this church and stayed here to farm the land," said congregation member Burdetta Ellis.

Delores Goode, who grew up a neighbor to the church and never left these last 70 years, gave a brief history to the visitors sitting in an elegant, spacious sanctuary dominated by a towering stained-glass window. Shiloh began as a log cabin in 1898 and grew to a frame building, where the congregation treated the tourists to lunch.

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