Maryland’s Black communities have long been losing their lands to housing developments, flooding and erosion. Now they are also in danger of losing their history.
Over the past six months, two prominent chroniclers of Black Marylanders have died — James Stanley Lane in Crisfield and Louis S. Diggs in Catonsville. Each told the stories of their communities.
Diggs interviewed, among others, steelworkers of Sparrows Point; Lane preserved the stories of crab pickers, oyster shuckers and watermen. Their peers in the Black history community are getting older and looking to pass the torch — only they’re not finding a receptive younger generation.
“It’s just a challenge to maintain the interest,” said Newell Quinton, a retired administrator who is the de facto community historian in San Domingo, the Wicomico County hamlet where he grew up. “Today’s people have more opportunity to be engaged in other things, whereas we did not.”
Quinton is 79. Janice Hayes-Williams, a seventh-generation Annapolis resident who shares stories of the Black experience in Maryland’s capital, is 65. Glen Ross, a Baltimore City historian known for tours of the city’s toxic legacy, just hit 70. So did Vincent Leggett, the founder of Blacks of the Chesapeake, who maintains an extensive archive of Black maritime history.
No obvious replacement looms in academia for any of them. In 2021, Black employees made up less than 10% of all employees in higher education, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. In 2018, the American History Association reported that history majors declined the most of all bachelor degree programs. Many Ph.D. programs, already small, include only a few Black students, and often fewer tenured professors to teach them. Without young Black scholars preserving the collective memory, many historians worry that Black contributions to Maryland will go unrecognized.
“If you look over the last decade, some of the best writing on African American history has come from outside the community,” said Alan Spears of the National Parks Conservation Association, who counts himself among the region’s younger Black historians at age 58. “The bench strength for a lot of this stuff is not that deep. That clarion call you’re hearing is an alarm bell ringing.”
‘An intellectual gangster’
Maryland is rich with the history of Black Americans and their struggle for freedom. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are two of the nation’s most famous, but they didn’t act alone. A community of teachers, preachers, labor organizers, mariners and scholars supported them. Many kept records of their early civil rights struggles. Those families were often reluctant to turn over cherished documents to academic institutions, said Michael Guy, a historian and Ph.D. candidate at the George Washington University.
“Giving papers over to archives allows white historians to tell their stories in ways that are not representative of the reality of how Black people see it,” he said. “The Black historians were people that the people trusted with the documents. And if you lose them, you lose access to family histories that a lot of academics don’t feel are important enough to keep in archives.”
Building that trust has enabled Leggett to amass an archive that includes 60 ethnographic studies of historically Black communities. He’s working with the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Maryland State Archives to digitize the collection. All the while, he keeps collecting, getting the names and life stories of Black men and women whom white photographers identified only as “crab picker” and “oyster shucker.”
Over the years, academic historians have questioned his bona fides, especially when he introduced ideas unfamiliar to them. He recalled his “Chesapeake Underground” work received pushback because historians hadn’t considered how important the estuary and its rivers became to freedom seekers.
Leggett earned a master’s degree in planning, but when he briefly pursued a doctorate in American studies, he chafed at requirements that he conduct his research outside his preferred methods. He eventually left the program.
Since then, newspaper articles have described Leggett as an “amateur historian,” and academics have said his books, which include photographs, are short. One told a newspaper that the Annapolis resident was a nice guy but not a real researcher. Though annoying, he says, the comments don’t stop him.
“I look at myself as a John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, telling the story, and I don’t have the dollars or the time to dedicate to the academic rigor that is required,” Leggett said. “What I am is an intellectual gangster, and I was trained by intellectual gangsters.”
Leggett counts among his mentors Capt. Earl White, a Dames Quarter waterman with only a grade school education. He also learned from C. Vernon Gray, a political science professor who became the first Black councilman in Howard County, and Parren Mitchell, who sued University of Maryland to admit Black students and became its first Black graduate and, later, Maryland’s first Black congressman.
Leggett, in turn, has found his own disciples. Brittany Omoleye-Hall is a 32-year-old historian with the National Parks Service. A one-time doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, Omoleye-Hall left the program after disagreements with leaders there. She didn’t feel supported in her research and approaches, and resented the narratives that excluded Black stories in the Colonial period. Omoleye-Hall admires Leggett’s more inclusive approach to the past.
“I love the kind of activism that’s implied with being a community historian. This is about us understanding ourselves,” she said. “There is so much that is known by folks that have been around, but it is not easily accessible. And it is the local community stories that are going to change the paths of young people.”
James Lane was an activist historian, but like others, always had other jobs. He was an associate minister in the heart of Crisfield’s Black community, a public housing commissioner and a mayoral candidate.
When Hurricane Sandy hit Crisfield hard in 2012, the Black communities flooded quickly, because they were on the lowest land. But recovery dollars headed downtown to condominiums until Lane pushed elected officials to reverse course.
“There’s a population in our city that needs attention, and they’re not always able to express that, and my job was to make sure their voice is heard,” Lane said in an interview two years later. “If we had not rallied, we would still be in dire straits.”
Lane’s friend and fellow educator and historian, Carrie Samis, called him an “extraordinary heritage-bearer.”
“James had a way of celebrating life fully while still acknowledging injustices and challenges,” Samos said in a Facebook tribute
In Baltimore County, Diggs dug into history after his students at Catonsville High School couldn’t find much information on their families. By then, he’d retired from a career in the Washington, D.C., school system, and was substituting
His first book was “It All Started on Winters Lane: A History of the Black Community in Catonsville, Maryland,” published in 1995. He wrote 12 more books, including “From the Meadows to the Point: The Histories of the African American Community of Turner Station and “What was the African American Community in Sparrows Point.”
When Deborah Rudacille began researching her book, “Roots of Steel,” she struggled to find written histories about the Black communities in Sparrows Point until she encountered Diggs’ seminal book. For Rudicille, now a professor of practice in the English department at UMBC, it was a trove that made her own book more complete.
“It would have gone uncovered if he had not taken it upon himself to do this research,” said Rudacille, who appeared on some programs with Diggs and considered him a friend. “And now that he is gone, we have his books, which makes all of that knowledge and information available.”
For the past, a way forward
Like other community historians, Diggs was not writing for other academics and prestigious journals. He wrote for the people, sharing his knowledge at libraries and community events. He encouraged others to do their own research, and helped them do it.
Guy, who has bristled at some of George Washington’s practices for citing oral histories and distancing from subjects, thinks that a community historian approach might suit him. And it might help him encourage other young Black scholars to enter the profession.
Guy was on track to be an accountant when he did well in a community college history course. His professor, who was white, told him that Black students didn’t excel in history classes.
That comment stuck with Guy and galvanized him. Now, in a program with one other Black student and one Black professor, he says he’s not sure academia is a path for telling the stories he deems most important.
“Academia is very insular and insulated, and a lot of their discussions don’t permeate outside of academia,” he said. “I want to bridge discussions, because a lot of people are getting their history from Bill O’Reilly and the History Channel.”
Black historians say engaging everyday folk will help this research live on. Hayes-Williams’ daughter, Stacie, took over her historic tours of Annapolis when her mother couldn’t speak after a stroke. Now that she has recovered, her daughter still helps with her historic work.
Quinton established a family foundation to help San Domingo students afford college; he encourages the study of history. He has also helped restore the community’s once-segregated elementary school, which San Domingo uses for meetings.
Leggett said he’d bet on a fourth-grader, who is more likely to marvel at connections than a checked-out teenager or overwhelmed college student.
“I tell people, ‘I don’t have enough dollars or days in the week to tell everyone’s story. What I hope my work does is inspire you to tell your own story,’” he said. “We need to develop a new cadre of African-American champions, because without champions, it’s not going to happen.”
Rona Kobell is the editor in chief at the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative.