Over coffee and a croissant at an Owings Mills café one recent morning, Baltimore County historian and author Louis Diggs says his current book project will be his last.
That’s hard to believe, coming from a man who has spent the last 30 years researching and documenting dozens of the county’s historically black communities. From Winters Lane in Catonsville and Chattolannee in Greenspring Valley to Dundalk’s Turner Station, Diggs has published a dozen books on African-American residents and their communities as well as a series on black soldiers who served from the Civil War to the Korean War, of which Diggs is a veteran of an all-black unit.
But now, at 88, Diggs admits to slowing down a bit, although the curious and energetic nature that has kept him digging into the past to help people inform their present is still bright and evident. His eyes light up when talking about his 10th book, a nearly 500-page opus called “African Americans from Baltimore County Who Served in the Civil War: Maryland’s Six Regiments of Slaves.”
“I just simply love doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I gathered as much information as I could, and I thought maybe I could just scratch the surface, and somebody, later on, might pick up and go from there.”
Diggs is counting on “the young people” to take up the charge to continue to bring to light the depth and breadth of the county’s rich history of African-American life. He is currently working on his 13th book, “African Americans at Rest in Baltimore County, Maryland.”
“It is a 365-page book on the names of African-Americans laid to rest in the cemeteries of African-American churches, in public and private cemeteries and in cemeteries known to have been demolished, including those in white family cemeteries during the slavery era,” he says.
Things have changed since Diggs began excavating county black history, prompted by the frustration of
African-American students at Catonsville High School who had trouble finding information on their ancestors.
It was 1989, and after careers in the military and civil service, Diggs was retired, living in Catonsville and beginning to investigate his family history. He also substituted at the high school and was teaching the students there about genealogy.
“The white kids had no problem finding how they happen to come [to Catonsville],” he says. “But they didn’t have anything on African-Americans. They were so disappointed and asked me, ‘Mr. Diggs, could you help us find our roots here in Catonsville?’”
His late wife, a librarian, and others helped Diggs begin his research, and with a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, he finished his first book in 1995, “It All Started on Winters Lane.”
He got some play in the local news and was invited to give his first talk on the book. “Oh, my goodness, the people came,” he remembers. “There was just no room for everybody. And it motivated me to keep going.”
When Diggs started his research, and even now, much of it was with paper records and artifacts. But in the ensuing decades, genealogy searches have changed for African-Americans seeking their roots, including easily accessible online information, from U.S. Census an military records to sites like Find A Grave and African Ancestry, just one of the many companies offering home DNA test kits. At a recent talk by Diggs on historic black schoolhouses at the Diggs-Johnson Museum, a restored historic black church in Granite, many attendees say they were engaged in genealogy searches.
Gwen Marable, a retired educator, moved to Baltimore in 1990. Her family discovered they are related to the man known as the country’s first African- American scientist, Benjamin Banneker. A free black man living in Baltimore County in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Banneker was a clockmaker, mathematician, surveyor, astronomer and author of six authoritative almanacs. Jemima Banneker, Benjamin’s sister, was Marable’s fifth grandmother.
Today, Banneker’s family farmland and a reconstruction of his cabin are a part of a sprawling Baltimore County park and museum in Oella, celebrating Banneker’s life. As a storyteller and member of Griots’ Circle of Maryland, Marable is looking forward to continuing her genealogy with DNA testing.
“I will be looking for my African ancestry, in particular, as there are questions about where Bannaka,
Benjamin’s grandfather, and Robert, his father, were born,” Marable says, “It will be interesting to be surprised again with any ancestry information. Getting a DNA test is going on my bucket list.”
Through DNA-testing companies such as African Ancestry, Ancestry, 23andMe and others, African-Americans are looking past where paper records may be scant, or nonexistent.
In a June 2017 article in The Atlantic (“How African-Americans Use DNA Testing to Connect with Their Past”), Alondra Nelson of Columbia University noted that some African-Americans are wary of DNA testing because of scientific racism, including the eugenics movement. But because DNA testing can reach beyond challenges that can thwart genealogy searches, including slavery, it can be an invaluable tool for African-Americans.
“It’s an interesting story about race and genetics,” Nelson says. “When we talk about African-Americans in science, it’s often a story of skepticism and distrust. But this ancestry-testing story is one of pioneering early adopters who are willing to do something different.”
Carolyn G. Adams, of Cockeysville, and her late husband, William S. Adams, were two of those “pioneering early adopters.” They met in 1976, the same year Alex Haley’s “Roots” was published, followed by the groundbreaking television miniseries.
“That got us interested in finding his ancestry,” Carolyn says of her husband. “When we started, we expected that we would hit a wall with slavery in the 1860s. How wrong we were. We had no idea that in Maryland and Virginia,
especially, there were many, many free blacks going back to the 1600s and 1700s.”
They eventually traced one of William’s grandmothers’ ancestry to 1671 when a slave, Peter Beckett, appeared on a tithable list. He later married a white indentured servant named Sarah Dawson.
“We learned that there was much interracial mixing on all levels until the early 1700s,” Carolyn says.
William had his DNA tested in the early 1990s with Howard University’s African Ancestry, which Carolyn says was one of the earliest of its kind.
“His paternal ancestry could be traced to the Mbenzele tribe of today’s Central African Republic and his maternal line from the Fulani tribe in Niger,” Carolyn says. “The [DNA] results were fascinating and very rewarding. He was so proud to be able to have found much of his heritage — a knowledge so few African-Americans are ever able to achieve.”
William and Carolyn wrote and published several genealogy and black history books that are available at the Historical Society of Baltimore County, where she also gives history talks.
Pam Richardson, of Columbia, started her genealogy research about the same time Diggs began writing his books. She first compiled research from family members and now does most of her research online at sites such as newspaper.com, findagrave.com and familysearch.org, She first sought out DNA testing with African Ancestry
but has since also used Ancestry and 23andMe.
“One of the cousins that Ancestry identified reached out to me and told me that he found the manumission papers for one of my ancestors,” she recalled. “In talking with older relatives, it has always been good to hear stories and about growing up during the early 1900s in this area.”
“As an African-American, I find the search challenging but also rewarding when I find new information that can be documented. Draft, census and land records are really good in uncovering information and relationships,” she added. “The DNA testing has unearthed thousands of relatives, but many have no family tree or are difficult to contact. The best parts for me are working with more experienced genealogists that I’ve met in my genealogy groups and learning about the gems that they’ve found and how they did it.”
A recent “gem” discovered in Anne Arundel County through DNA testing was a significant find that will further the understanding of African-American history in Maryland.
When 200-year-old artifacts were unearthed at a site where people were enslaved at the former Belvoir plantation in Crownsville, Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist with the Maryland Department of Transportation, went to work.
Schablitsky made the bold decision to DNA test the stem of a clay pipe that was uncovered, even though DNA is usually not recoverable from inanimate objects as old as those discovered at the site. In March, it was announced that DNA testing revealed the pipe stem was used by a woman whose ancestry was traced back to West Africa’s Mende people of Sierra Leone.
“It was the first time anyone lifted DNA from an artifact and was able to link it with a specific ancestral group.
So often we find sites that seem like humble homesteads, but we are unable to link them to people of African descent,” Schablitsky says. “Ideally, we could get other archaeologists to use this application on their sites. After a decade, it would be incredible to see if patterns of specific countries/regions in Africa are forming along the East Coast.”
In late September, Schablitsky was ready to send 18 more pipe stems to a Copenhagen lab for DNA testing. “They came from an alleged slave cabin in Cambridge, located along the Harriet Tubman underground railroad byway,” she says.
As for home DNA testing, Diggs says African-Americans seem enthusiastic about its potential. “Honestly, everyone seems to be going crazy over Ancestry,” he says.
When Diggs had his DNA tested recently it revealed that his ancestors hail from around the globe, including Nigeria, Great Britain and Western Europe, Benin/Togo and the Iberian Peninsula.
Just as he felt 30 years ago, when he helped his high school students explore their ancestry, Diggs says stories of African-American heritage are more important than ever. He urges parents to take their children to area sites important to African-American history such as the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, the Diggs-Johnson Museum and the Hampton National Historic Site.
In the introduction to Diggs’ 2002 book, “Surviving in America,” his friend and fellow historian, Lenwood Johnson, wrote, “Mr. Diggs, please continue to research and write your books, which fire the imagination and compel us to ask questions.”
“Our children need to know about their backgrounds,” Diggs says. “I just believe that people need to know more about their family. I really do. I’m dead set on it.”
For more information, louisdiggs.com, diggsjohnsonmuseum.com.