Amid festival fun, a serious passion for African-American history in Baltimore County

The Baltimore County African American Cultural Festival had all of the usual fun offerings: musicians performing gospel songs, vendors selling clothes made from African-inspired textiles and booths that dished up soul food favorites like fried fish and collard greens.

But in a corner of the festival in Towson, several groups quietly offered something they hoped would also resonate with festival-goers.

They told the stories of Marylanders who played on Negro Leagues baseball teams, of men who served their country as Buffalo Soldiers, and of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells sparked medical discoveries that her family never knew about for years.

And they shared the stories of Baltimore County’s 40 recognized historically African-American neighborhoods, which few residents know about.

“If people don’t know from where they came, they don’t know where they are going,” said Mary Radcliffe, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Radcliffe, a retired Baltimore schoolteacher, said few people know that African-Americans have lived in the county for hundreds of years and made significant contributions to society along the way. Her chapter works to pass along history to younger generations through partnerships with county schools.

Radcliffe hopes that when young people learn about local African-American history, they will become more excited about contributing to their community and continuing the legacy.

Phyllis B. Watkins, another member of the chapter, said that people are always surprised when they learn about the “rich history” of African-Americans in the county.

“So many of them thought African-Americans did not exist in Baltimore County,” she said. “When they come in here, it just blows their mind.”

The centerpiece of the festival’s history zone was a tent filled with long tables displaying dozens of posters covered with pictures from the county’s 40 African-American enclaves. The posters are the culmination of decades of work by Louis Diggs, who canvassed each one of the neighborhoods collecting photos and documenting oral histories.

Some of the neighborhoods are well-known, like the east county neighborhood of Turners Station, where Lacks lived when her cancer cells were taken by Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors to be used in research. Or East Towson, which recently unveiled a marker explaining how the community was founded by freed slaves.

Diggs’ posters document African-American families from less well-known neighborhoods, too, such as tiny Granite in the western part of the county and Hereford in the north.

Diggs rarely displays so many of his posters at once, and he enjoyed seeing people’s eyes light up Saturday when they recognized a relative.

“I really get thrilled,” he said. “All the years it took me to do it, this shows me it’s worthwhile.”

Allenette Valentine perused the posters and stopped when she reached the one for Piney Grove in the northwest county community of Boring. She spotted pictures of her friends’ relatives and used her cellphone to record them.

“I think it is great,” said Valentine, who lives in the city neighborhood of Ashburton. “Too much history is lost. I just wish I had gotten more information from my older relatives.”

Nearby, members of the Baltimore Buffalo Soldiers drew attention for their blue uniforms with gold handkerchiefs. On several tables, they displayed authentic and reproduction equipment used by the Buffalo Soldiers, a name given to African-American cavalry units who primarily fought in the Indian wars in the West in the late 1800s.

Manny Locke said that too often, the Buffalo Soldiers are glossed over in history classes and few people know much about them. For example, he said, three Marylanders who served as Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.

“We like to make sure we tell people a proper history of how black soldiers contributed to our history,” he said.

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