Louis Sylvester Diggs, a historian of Baltimore County’s Black communities and a retired schools personnel officer, died of heart failure Oct. 24 at Northwest Hospital Center. The former Catonsville resident was 90.
“Louis Diggs will always be remembered as a friend, a prolific writer and a scholar of African American history, heritage and culture,” said Maryland Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones. “His passing is a devastating loss, but his influence and voice will echo throughout Baltimore County for years to come.”
Born in Baltimore and raised on Stricker Street, he was the son of George Diggs, a truck driver, and Agrada Deaver, a teacher and laundry worker. He attended Booker T. Washington Junior High School and Frederick Douglass High School. In his senior year, he joined an all-Black Maryland National Guard transportation unit.
In a 2008 Baltimore Sun story, he credited his mother, a single parent with five children, for motivating him to become a writer.
“I know I got my writing from my mother. My mother would write [letters] and I would just watch her, and I always admired her writing,” he said.
He also said he taught himself to type by sneaking his older sister’s typewriter. “I always liked to express myself,“ he said.
During the Korean War, he was federalized into the Army and sent overseas. Mr. Diggs remained in the Army until 1970 and served in Korea on three deployments and in Stuttgart, Germany.
While on a leave in 1953, he met his future wife, Shirley Washington. They married a year later.
“When I first met her, they sent me to Germany right away in 1953, and I wrote to this woman twice a day, three times on Sunday, with these flowery letters,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been together for [all those years.]”
He went on to be a sergeant major of the Morgan State University ROTC and later earned his GED degree and earned an associate degree at the Community College of Baltimore County. He then received a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Baltimore.
Mr. Diggs commuted from his Catonsville home to the District of Columbia public school system, where he was assistant to the personnel director for staffing. He retired in 1989.
He became a substitute teacher at Catonsville High School. When he found that his students did not know the history of the historic Black community at Winters Lane, he took it upon himself to research it.
“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,” he said 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.”
In 1995, he published his first book, “It All Started on Winters Lane.” He lived on that street from the early 1960s until 1978, when he moved two blocks away.
Mr. Diggs said the work takes the reader back to the days of slavery, how Winters Lane began, where its population came from, and what made the community strong and stable.
Over the years, he went on to do histories of Piney Grove, Turners Station, Belltown in Owings Mills and other historically Black Baltimore County neighborhoods.
“Some of these communities have been here since the 1700s, and here I am writing about these communities that during a couple hundred years, someone should have captured that history along the way,” he said.
The 2008 Sun article said: “He does his research carefully and politely, often interviewing residents in their homes to help put them at ease. He also video[tapes] and audiotapes many of his interviews at the dining room or kitchen table, a homey setting of familiarity.”
He was a founder of the Baltimore County African American Cultural Festival in Towson.
“He was the foremost contributor to the study of African American history in Baltimore County,” said Betty R. Stewart, a friend who assisted Mr. Diggs on bus tours he gave.
Mr. Diggs was an honorary lifetime board member of the Historical Society of Baltimore County, where he recorded his life story in an oral history.
Mr. Diggs also helped preserve the Diggs Johnson Museum in Granite. The museum is housed in the former Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church. The museum is partially named in his honor.
The Morning Sun
“My father was a happy guy. He didn’t take himself too seriously,” said his son Fredric Diggs.
Mr. Diggs kept a boat near the Hanover Street Bridge and enjoyed fishing on Sunday mornings. He also did lapidary work — he cut and polished stones and made jewelry. He was a citizens band radio enthusiast and was an early user of Macintosh computers.
In 2016, Baltimore County established the Louis S. Diggs Award in his honor.
A funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 15 at Union Bethel AME Church, at 8615 Church Lane in Randallstown, where he was a member.
Mr. Diggs’ wife, Shirley Washington Diggs, a clerk at the Catonsville Baltimore County Public Library, died in 2015. His second wife, Elizabeth Smith, a federal worker, died in 2021.
Survivors include his three sons, Fredric Diggs of Bellevue, Washington, Blair Diggs of Silver Spring and Terrance Diggs of Columbia; a sister, Nettie “Peggy” Holley of Baltimore; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. His son Louis S. Diggs Jr. died in 2018.