Family, friends mourn loss of Louis Diggs, chronicler of Black history in Baltimore County

Published on: November 05, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: November 07, 2022 9:31 AM EST

Louis Diggs in 2007 at Community College Baltimore County (CCBC).

Louis Diggs, a historian and author who dedicated nearly three decades to researching and writing about African American history in Baltimore County, has died. He was 90.

Diggs published his first book, “It All Started on Winters Lane: A History of the Black Community in Catonsville, Maryland,” in 1995 and went on to write 12 more — documenting histories left largely untold.

“He is the foremost contributor to the study of African American history in Baltimore County, and he’s the go-to for everybody for anything to do with African American history in the region,” said James Keffer, the executive director of the Historical Society of Baltimore County.

Diggs’ work chronicled the history of African American communities of Turner Station, Sparrows Point and East Towson, as well as those in Catonsville and Reisterstown, among others. He wrote about African Americans from Baltimore County who served in the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

“What made him incredible is that he took a topic that no one else had bothered to study, which is the African Americans of Baltimore County, and made it almost a life’s work,” said Bill Barry, former director of Labor Studies at CCBC Dundalk, who was a friend “and admirer” of Diggs for over 20 years.

Diggs died on Oct. 24 at Northwest Hospital. A cause of death was not immediately available.

He is survived by a sister, three sons, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, as well as a sister-in-law, brother-in-law, and “tons of friends, nieces and nephews,” according to his youngest son, Fredric Diggs.

He was born in Baltimore in 1932, and dropped out of Frederick Douglass High School in 1950 to join an all-Black Maryland National Guard unit. The Korean War broke out soon after, and his unit was federalized into the U.S. Army, said Fredric Diggs.

During his two years in Korea, Diggs drove trucks full of supplies and materials across the war zone, his son said. It was the beginning of a 20-year military career that at one point moved his family to Germany.

After retiring from the military, Diggs went on to earn his high school diploma, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s of public administration. For nearly 20 years, he worked in the Washington, D.C., school system, retiring in 1989.

He then started substitute teaching at Catonsville High School.

In that role, Diggs became inspired to start his research after some of his Black students told him they couldn’t find any information on their families and neighborhoods, according to Betty Stewart, a former Johns Hopkins nurse and close friend for two decades.

“And that’s what started him searching and looking into the communities, and starting to put it all in writing,” Stewart said.

He became determined to preserve the history of African American communities in Baltimore County, she said, and did not give up.

“If there was something else to tell, he told it. If he heard of another community, I’m sure he got there,” Stewart said.

Even days before he died, he told Stewart jokingly, “I still got one more good book in me.”

“Well, you better get to writing,” she told him.

Diggs would conduct interviews with families and the elderly in communities to get oral histories. He’d collect photographs and dig through historical archives.

Courtney Speed, a community leader in Turner Station who helped introduce Diggs to subjects for his book “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,” said he was a good interviewer.

Through his questions, people “could see he was genuinely concerned, not only just to get the information but to help them resolve some of the negative experiences that they had,” Speed said. “And they felt they could trust him with the information.”

Over the years, his work went beyond the written word.

Diggs helped renovate what was once called the Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church, a historically Black church in western Baltimore County, and transform it into a museum honoring the county’s 40 historically African American communities.

It opened in 2015 as the Diggs-Johnson Museum, named for Diggs and Lenwood Johnson, a historian and former Baltimore County government planner, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun.

Every year, on the day of the Baltimore County African American Cultural Festival, Diggs would give bus tours to introduce the history of some of those communities, and sometimes the photos he’d collected were made into posters.

In 2016, former Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced the establishment of the Louis S. Diggs award in honor of his work.

“He was just an incredible historian,” said Barry, whose work on Sparrows Point at some points overlapped with Diggs’ investigations. While other historians may be protective of their work, Diggs was always happy to help, Barry said.

Louis Diggs worked all hours of the night, his son Fredric remembers. When the family lived in Catonsville, Louis Diggs worked in a basement bedroom, which was always “filled with computers, typewriters,” Fredric Diggs said.

“The walls were full of different newspaper clippings and pictures that he’d found of old family members or old community stuff,” he said.

When Louis Diggs moved to Owings Mills, he set up his office in a walk-in closet. “It only fit one person in there, and it was full of stuff,” including printers, CDs and DVDs. “He had a like a million floppy disks in there,” his son said.

But even before he began his study of history, Louis Diggs was always occupied with something, his son said.

When the family lived in Germany, Louis Diggs would go out to antique stores and purchase broken-down clocks, which he learned how to fix. “Growing up, we always had tons of antique clocks,” his son said. Before his father left for work in the morning, he’d wind up the clocks, which would tick all day, his son recalled.

“I hated it,” he said, laughing.

At another point, Louis Diggs learned how to make uncut rocks into jewelry.

Every Sunday morning for years, the two would go out on a boat at Sandy Point and fish.

The younger Diggs said his father didn’t take himself too seriously.

“He’s doing all of these things for the community, writing these books, but when he was home, he was talking about the Ravens game,” he said.

Before he died, Louis Diggs told Stewart he didn’t want his work to be forgotten. He wants generations of children to be able to learn about their communities and their history, Stewart said, “because that’s what history is all about, it’s passing it forward.”

“Betty,” he’d say, “keep my legacy alive.”