Voices of Baltimore
Transcripts from Film Interviewees
April 17, 2016
Interviewee: Mr. Louis Diggs
Interviewer: Dr. Franklin CampbellJones
Mr. Diggs: Things were really tough. When I start a program, I feel that if I could share this with children in poverty in Baltimore now, I mean, perhaps I could – my own example in my life of 84 years shows them how you can actually come out of poverty, with all the things that were holding you back to become a productive citizen and a good father and – in the latter life, I’m comfortable with my life. And I know it wouldn’t have happened if certain conditions had applied, you know, when I was coming up. Which I’ll be glad to explain –
Dr. CampbellJones: Well, that would be really good if you could, you know, you mentioned something about values that your mother imparted for you.
Mr. Diggs: Yes.
Dr. CampbellJones: There are some things you have in mind when you say that.
Mr. Diggs: Yes.
Dr. CampbellJones: You talk about it as a child in that sort of – in that circumstance and as you reflect back on it, obviously there is something you carry forth with you that actually made a big difference somewhere along the line. What would be those things you talk about?
Mr. Diggs: One in particular was a policewoman in Baltimore at that time called Sergeant Violet Hill Whyte and I think her primary job was to be sure that the black children stayed in school. And if you didn’t stay in school (laughter) she really had a unique way of tracking you down. There was no support. She made it quite clear that if you didn’t go to school young man you’re going to Cheltenham. Cheltenham was supposedly a place for wayward boys down in Annapolis, but the boys that I know that came out of Cheltenham were hardened criminals. I mean, they had to fend for their own lives down there and I did not want that to happen to me. And on several occasions when she had my mother take me to Northwest Police Station on Pennsylvania Avenue – where there were children actually behind bars, the girls were waiting to go to that. I believe it’s called Rosewood. I’m not sure, but boys, you know. She was just trying to scare us, I know, because I was slick enough to see my mother had a return transfer on the bus so I knew she – I wasn’t going to stay there. But I just thought, you know, had I gone to Cheltenham I would never have become a productive citizen. The life that I’ve lived since then, it wouldn’t have happened. I dropped out of high school. That was a death in itself. And, I don’t know, somehow, because of values that my mother instilled in me, I feel that I was just able to work my way up. Because I joined the Army, I became disciplined, developed a skill. I finished my high school, I went on through an AA degree, a BA degree. I have a Masters in Public Administration. I took graduate classes in George Washington University. You know, all of those things helped me to really make for a life where I could rear my four children, offer them education, and my wife and I have a nice life as we, you know, get near the end of the thing.
Dr. CampbellJones: So that bus ride made a difference?
Mr. Diggs: Oh yes. It was just that one bus ride (Laughter).
Dr. CampbellJones: (Laughter) You had quite a few bus rides.
Mr. Diggs: Yes, I did. A couple of them.
Dr. CampbellJones: Okay. Well, you know, you talk about growing up in Baltimore during Jim Crow. So can you describe a little bit of your recollection of that – what that was like for you? And you may want to talk about just your family life – you talked about that a little bit, but there is a lot more going on than you probably touched upon.
Mr. Diggs: Well I mean, one thing, you had to learn how to survive in the ghetto. I mean, you really didn’t know white people. You know, somehow you had to learn how to interact with the white police officers. For example, when they stop you for anything, don’t look them in the eye. You say “no sir,” you keep your head down, you’ll be okay.
Dr. CampbellJones: Can you talk about that just a little bit? What did looking them in the eye mean, and not looking in the eye meant?
Mr. Diggs: Well, I don’t know how I knew that is what you do, but things that you learn to function in a segregated situation, I mean, you just learn from everyone’s reactions to different things, I guess. But, I remember once I was stopped and it was because I didn’t go to school. I was out at Druid Hill Park. And this police officer, all he was going to do was to take me back to school, but he could’ve been – this particular case could have been even worse, you know, if I had I defied him and looked him in the eye. And I’ve heard many of the older guys say “Just don’t look them in the eye” and they feel that you have – I don’t know what the word would be – but you’ve done what society you wants to do, don’t argue with society, do with the whites say.
Dr. CampbellJones: So, the police were society?
Mr. Diggs: Yes.
Dr. CampbellJones: And you are not a part of society?
Mr. Diggs: Not that part of the society.
Dr. CampbellJones: Not that part.
Mr. Diggs: And unfortunately that carried me a long way, even in the Army, I felt that the white guys – we were all doing the same kind of work – but I just couldn’t compete with them. That didn’t last for long, especially – I was in a segregated army in Korea. And when it was desegregated, a year or two later, and I was transferred out of this black unit, then for sure I knew I really, really had to compete. And over my lifetime I did. I did, but something that happened to a person like me living in this sort of situation. As an older man, when I went to apply for VA loan – and I should really be ashamed of myself – that VA also asked me, “Are you buying a car?” And I said “Yes”. And he said, “You’re not eligible for a loan.” And I accepted that. And I knew darn well that was wrong, you know. Like your conditioned for a long time in your life, you know? And things that you shouldn’t do. I mean it didn’t last all my life …
Dr. CampbellJones: That’s interesting, because you went from a segregated place where the rules were “This is how you behave”, then you went to a desegregated place where the rules changed.
Mr. Diggs: Right.
Dr. CampbellJones: But nobody really told you how you all act and behave in this new space.
Mr. Diggs: Well, not really.
Dr. CampbellJones: Okay.
Mr. Diggs: I mean you’re there, you’re in that environment, you’re actually competing. And military officers, I mean, would not permit people – enlisted men, enlisted women – to segregate against African-Americans. They would not allow it, so it didn’t take long for one to realize you let your work speak for you. And as time goes on you find out that, heck, it ain’t all that different between them anyhow. I mean, as far as your production of work, that’s all that matters.
Dr. CampbellJones: But you had to come to that realization yourself.
Mr. Diggs: Yeah.
Dr. CampbellJones: This was something that you had to go from this old – this older place, pre-segregated, to this now new line, where this line has been supposedly erased. But even though it’s erased, you still have to sort of, you know, come into this place…
Mr. Diggs: For a while.
Dr. CampbellJones: Yes, for a while.
Mr. Diggs: Until you realize. I mean, one time, like, I was in a black trucking unit and then we were sent to support, like, first Calvary division. And, you know, you’re way up in North Korea somewhere and it’s time for the unit to eat, you can’t go in no white mess hall. You can’t park your trucks. They’d make you stay outside. You were given supplies of, I don’t know if they call them K rations or C rations for World War II. And that’s what we had to subside on until we left. And as far as sleeping arrangements, I don’t give a darn how cold it is, you’re sleeping under your truck away from protection if nothing else. But all of that changed, it changed overnight. And I was fortunate enough to experience that change because I was there in ’50 and they changed in ’51.
Dr. CampbellJones: It was just overnight?
Mr. Diggs: Just overnight.
Dr. CampbellJones: Wow.
Mr. Diggs: You went to bed full, white or black kid and you woke up the next day. And it didn’t matter with the guys. Honestly. I mean, this is a wartime situation -they got no time for segregation. You got to watch each other’s back.
Dr. CampbellJones: So, everybody was caught in the rules?
Mr. Diggs: Everybody was caught in the rules. Yes, sir.
Dr. CampbellJones: Black or white.
Mr. Diggs: Yes, sir.
Dr. CampbellJones: Is that what the rules were before segregation? And then after segregation everybody was trying to figure out how not to.
Mr. Diggs: I don’t know how they figured it out. But it just happened.
Dr. CampbellJones: It just happened.
Mr. Diggs: You know, and this unit that I was assigned to. I was taken out of my black unit in 1952. And I was put in the first Calvary division. And unfortunately – I hate to say anything bad because I loved the military. I spent almost 21 years there. If it wasn’t for them I think I would had a different life after that. But I love the military, I don’t want to talk anything negative about it. All I can say is they were not nice to us. And I’d reenlisted. I liked the Army after it was integrated in ’51. I wanted a regular site. I didn’t want to be sent back home. So they assigned me to infantry division that was going to Japan and I went with them, thank goodness.
Dr. CampbellJones: The kind of had the advantage of getting out and seeing a little different where the world.
Mr. Diggs: Yes. And then I came back home —
Dr. CampbellJones: What was it like, you coming back?
Mr. Diggs: You know, those were my worst experiences, because I’ve been in Japan and Korea- those were really the integrated situations. When I got home and I helped my mother in Baltimore — stayed there with her for a while, was assigned to that Philip Duffy defense areas. And ’53 … that’s when major cities had the missile units around. I was assigned to the Philadelphia area, I was an administrative worker, and became a sergeant major. So when I left mom had an old car and I was going up to … actually the battalion was in New Jersey — and my mother fixed fried chicken and stuff for me to eat on the road which I appreciated. And she put a bottle in the car and I asked “What is a bottle for?” Well, I soon found out. When I got up Pulaski highway, there wass nowhere I could stop to eat. Not on the road until I got to the place in Pennsylvania where the ferry had to go over — and I said “Damn, I fought for my country! And I can’t stop me get a damn hamburger!” Some folks will go around the side – But no, my pride would not let me do that … no sir.
Dr. CampbellJones: Talk about what it means to “go around to the side” —
Mr. Diggs: I think that’s most – that another word for it … you just don’t feel comfortable … not me. I didn’t feel comfortable not being able to go to in that front door and get something. I just assume not eat. And I had that happen a couple of times. Including on troop changes. When the train stopped at the gambling place Nevada – a couple guys we knew were going to be there for a while and I got some beer and soda and whiskey or whatever — every place you had to go in the side. I didn’t have a choice if I wanted something that drink. The train, which I guess it would take maybe a day for a person to go cross-country and we were going to Seattle, Washington from New Jersey. It took us maybe a week or so to get there. Anytime we had an opportunity to get something to eat or drink, you took advantage that. But I don’t know — think those kind of experiences I think helped me better my later life. I had four sons to rear, and my experiences helped me. Even when I retired I took a job teaching at the high school at ROTC in Washington DC — so your experiences showed them a lot to make them better people, to better understand the world once they got on their own.
Dr. CampbellJones: So, once you cross the line – I mean, you sort of broke those barriers. You just kept doing it.
Mr. Diggs: Yes.
Dr. CampbellJones: It’s kind of, sort of, like, became a mission? Just to keep doing that?
Mr. Diggs: I don’t – I won’t say it became a mission. But every time I encountered one, I didn’t duck them. No.
Dr. CampbellJones: I understand. So here you were in Korea – you were serving the country – you’ve gone to Japan, now you come home and now you’re eating – your choices are to eat on the side, not go…
Mr. Diggs: Or go to a black place.
Dr. CampbellJones:…Or go to a black place.
Mr. Diggs: Yes.
Dr. CampbellJones: And that was it?
Mr. Diggs: And I thought that – I felt so bad about that. I mean – I thought I was OK because I fought for my country and I’m in uniform.
Dr. CampbellJones: Right. Right.
Mr. Diggs: But that’s the reality of life.
Dr. CampbellJones: That’s the way it was – so if you were to think about social life, you know, pre-, you know, segregation and then also post-segregation – you kind of talked about that a little bit now. What are some of the things that crop up for you?
Mr. Diggs: Well, one of the most significant things is that I got married in ’54 and – even though I was born and raised in Baltimore city, the young lady that I married came from the Winters Lane community in Catonsville. And it was just as segregated out here as it was in the city. So I was prepared for it. And because my wife – I think she only married me because it was a way for her to get out of Catonsville – and (laughter) Lord knows I fell in love with her and I fell in love with Catonsville because I’ve always wanted a home where I could grow grass and not paint the damn concrete green to – no I’m serious about that. Or put up a green chain-linked fence around your house. And I just loved it. As a matter of fact, while I was there – I’d lived there for about 50 years – here right in Catonsville – and when I retired from the military – and that was in 1970 – my sons – I had four sons and no daughters – and they convinced me that I should not just sit home – I should go to the high school and be a role model. Because some of the African-American boys there were causing all the trouble, which I found out later there was only one Black male teacher there. So, I went down and tried to become a role model for the kids. And, you know, this is really funny too. The principal then – by then I had credentials – I wasn’t a high school dropout – I at least had a Master’s degree. So I became a substitute teacher and the first time that I was just walking the halls, this boy really approached me and really got smart with me and I said to this boy – I knew him and I knew his parents, he did not recognize me – and I said to him, I said, you know son, when I go home tonight I don’t think – I don’t remember their mother and fathers name – I said Bob and Mary – I don’t think they’re going to appreciate what I’m going to say to them because I’m going to see them tonight. And he said, how do you know my parents? And I said I know them – and I explained – I said, I know where you live and then he really got a little bit concerned. Didn’t take long for word to get around and I know I made a difference being there, just as a substitute teacher. I know that. As a matter of fact, those kids – the black kids – I don’t know – they taught me to teach in a class on how to research your roots in your community for a semester, and I did. And those – the black kids said, you know, we could not find anything on Winters Lane. We know it’s been there, you know, our parents have been there for several generations. But they didn’t know how it began or anything. And they were so hurt and they asked me if I could help them find the history of their community. And I said, you know, I’m from – really – North Baltimore City, I don’t really know much about the county. But I was 60 years old and I just couldn’t say no. And those kids caused me to research and write my first book called “It All Started On Winters Lane.” And it was then that I found out that, nowhere could I find a history on 40 black communities that in 1992, Baltimore County listed them as historic. Not in the true sense of the word, but they called them – there were 40 historic African-American enclaves. And when this book was published, the Sun Paper wrote an article – I went up to the Catonsville historical Society, just up the road here – to speak about this first book and they wrote this article about this black man writing the first known history of black life in the county. And I mean, so many people there, wasn’t enough room inside, and that’s when I realized that I need to continue that. So it took me 25 years to go through all of those 25 – 40 rather, historic black communities and I collected maybe 10,000 photographs, all of the oral interviews I did, for both an audio and video.
Dr. CampbellJones: And I’m listening to your story and, you know, what’s fascinating to me about it is that you spent up to that time, 60 years of your life, living in the place that you didn’t even know was historic. And no one had bothered to even take the time to figure it out until you sort of, stumbled into this in a way, sort of, through the back door. Not being a historian, but, you’ve got universities all around here that would probably, should’ve maybe, taken an interest in that.
Mr. Diggs: Oh, I’m so glad you asked me that question.
Dr. CampbellJones: I’m asking you because here you have now, you’ve grown up here, gone through this, went to Korea, went to Japan, riding the train, going through the side door, I mean, all the things you’re telling me. And then, it just so happened that the kids are basically begging you – sort of like a cry here, sort of, like you crying to yourself – that somebody needs to do this. And I’m just wondering just like, I mean, that was a question I asked you about sort of, like a purpose. It’s like, here you are again, doing something that maybe should have been done a long time ago, but then when you look around and the only person whose standing there is you. Like answering a call here, and it’s sort of like you being in that position a lot of times. Maybe if you can just take us a little bit back about what school was like for you, pre-segregation. Cause you talk about the kids, you know …
Mr. Diggs: Right, right …
Dr. CampbellJones: You know what I mean?
Mr. Diggs: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. CampbellJones: So, this little school for you, during the segregation era. And then later I want to, kind of, contrast it with what you’re seeing now because you probably see something different now. You’ve got the benefit now, to stretch, that a lot of us don’t have – a lot of people don’t have. So what was it like for you in the beginning?
Mr. Diggs: My mother, she would try to convince all of her children – three sons and two daughters – you know, about the importance of going to school. I don’t know, but it never really, it never really sink in on me. Really, it just never did. And going to school, I mean, the teachers were nice, they were determined that you are going to learn something because they knew when you finish those 12 years, that you’re going to be out there in that world and you’re going to be facing some problems that you’re not prepared for. And they know that at least, having a high school education could help you. Through the elementary side, it was just like anybody, you know, for the first six years, and I think I did pretty well. Some of that changed when I went to junior high school. Junior high school then, you had a little more freedom than you did in elementary school. The teachers were a little more hard on you, especially the males to at least, keep you in school, you know, trying to find a way to educate you. Like, maybe you’re interested in building something and they’ll guide you toward – I forgot what it was called –
Dr. CampbellJones: Industrial arts?
Mr. Diggs: Industrial arts. And me, I have always had a love to write. Always, I always liked to write. And when I got to junior high school, my oldest sister – she had a typewriter – and I would break into her thing every day and I would type on her type writer and she would get mad and fight me at the end, but just liked to type what I had in my mind. Rather than write, I felt it would be easier to type it, so I’d just type, type and when I got to senior high school, I then took up typing. I had to fight every day because I was the only boy out of the 50 girls in class. You know, you just had to fight one of them when you got out, but that was the only thing that I really, really did like. And I liked English because it helped me with these words that I’d like to put together things, and they didn’t catch it at the junior high school level. I didn’t take those kind of classes because the guys down there, they were a little harder than the guys – they were less understanding than the senior high school boys and I knew darn well if I went and took typing, or shorthand, or whatever they offered at junior high school, I would be having a problem. Plus, they always make you join little gangs and things, and I hooked with a group that always hooked school. And I found out they I liked hooking school, because I simply didn’t like sitting in class. It wasn’t interesting to me. That was one thing, it just simply was not interesting to me and that went off. And, of course, I failed. I failed a couple times, but I was able to at least, go through and when I got in Douglass High, the senior high, at the ninth-grade level, that’s when I took up commercial. And I really did like that, and I still had this thing – the teachers were very strong.
Dr. CampbellJones: Now can you talk about that a little bit? See? Because my – I grew up in a segregated school system too, in the South, alright, in Arkansas. And I went through the part of transitioning out of a segregated school to a desegregated program in the South, called the Little Rock Nine. So, that was a huge difference to me from one school to the next, it was gigantic. And so, but you just mentioned something that I’ve the same kind of experience. You said the teachers always said, to me, you had to be prepared – and that was like a daily ritual, you have to be prepared. I can’t tell you how many times …
Mr. Diggs: Same here. They were very strong in trying, but I guess, teachers just have to give up when you’re not trying to learn. I guess they just give up on you, and that’s why it failed. And it wasn’t because I was dumb or anything, but taking tests – it seemed to me like attendance is more important to your moving along then taking tests. I was good at taking tests. But I guess, the class fair, I guess had something to do with it. And then when I went to tenth grade, then I don’t know – I ran into this police officer. Seriously, you know, I still hadn’t reached 16. By law, I had to go to school, and I knew that. And Ms. Segreant — I’ve had many encounters with her by not attending school, but there was no help. Either you went to school, or you went to Cheltenham. There was no in-between. However, in our community, in Sandtown, where I was reared, there were black police officers that ran a small club, usually for boys. They were the ones that really tried to work with the individuals – those that they knew did not have fathers. And the men of the community – they knew what mothers had these children with no fathers – and they were hard on them, especially those steel workers. When they would come home and you act up, you know, when they smack you on the head, they smack you little bit too hard. And then, they say go tell your mother. And then you tell your mother and she’d said, “I’m going to get him to do that again to you.” But those kind of people did their jobs in trying to keep you – the police officers said to me – and I was so determined that I was not going to go back – and they convinced me to try the military. Now, the war was not on then. It was not on. It just happened that in the Maryland National Guard – so many people don’t know this – that there’s a black component there that has been with the Maryland National Guard since 1879.
Dr. CampbellJones: Even today?
Mr. Diggs: Even today. No. 1879, there was blacks that obviously came out of – I don’t know where they came out of – I wrote a book about it. Because nobody knew about it. Every time I talked with somebody, they would say, “What black National Guard?” Anyhow, they were like semi-military and they would just compete against each other in their soldierly skills. The ones in Baltimore was called the – oh gosh – The Monumental City Guard. There was another one called the Baltimore White Folks, then there is another black unit up in Frederick – I can’t think of their name – and there was a black unit in Washington, DC. They just competed amongst themselves. So the National Guard got – heard that they were so good in their soldierly skill that the – actually, the general decided to inspect them… And he found all those guys were really, really good so they offered all of them entrance into the Maryland National Guard as separate companies. Now you know it wasn’t no integration, not in no 1879, but this was in 1833 when they actually accepted them in. The Baltimore one – the Baltimore one – they were the best of all – they survived. All the other ones failed – they survived. All of them the active duty of the Spanish-American War. World War I sent them to France where the American Expeditionary Force wouldn’t fight with blacks. And then, under the French army, World War II ordered them back. And during this time between the end of World War II and 1947, they were converted to a Truck Battalion, and commanded by a sharp looking African American Lieutenant Colonel. And with three truck companies, 1950 rolls around. In August of 1950, they ordered them to active duty – August of 1950. We then went to Camp Edwards, Massachusetts for supposedly training, which I don’t think was really training because by November, they sent the battalion headquarters and the company that I was assigned to, 726, sent us to Korea. One company, 147, they sent to Germany, and one other company went to Virginia. And everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do. It was support outfit. When we reached Korea in December of 1950, it was – I don’t know how many thousands of people were along this troop ship, but when we finally got to Pusan, it was such an urgent need for truck drivers because they had already been pushed back and they were pushing forward. But – you can say what you want about combat troops. They’re the ones that always get to go out and so forth, but somebody’s got to take them there to get this guard. And that’s what these truck companies did. And out of all these men on this boat, they selected the 726 Transportation Truck Company – my company. We were the first of all United States National Guard units to set foot – and that was history making. And it went from there.
Dr. CampbellJones: What I found fascinating about your story is that, you know, you related that to the police officers that were taking care of you when you were a kid and how they sort of became the dads of the community, especially for families like yours. Now, you fast-forward that to the kids who were asking you now to teach them about their history. I mean, in a way you kind of did the same thing for those kids that those guys did for you.
Mr. Diggs: I tried to – I really did.
Dr. CampbellJones: I mean, so you carried that forward. You know, so when opportunity came – you’re in a post-segregated society now, but yet you’re still needing to do the same thing. And I’m not so sure that it’s segregation that’s the issue. It’s that just – somehow the family – maybe you’re a little bit more tight and knit in the pre-segregated – I mean in the segregated times. And then after segregation, maybe there’s a vacuum there. That somehow when it came time for you, the kids were saying, basically, “Wait a minute now – we need this”. Does that make sense?
Mr. Diggs: In a way it makes sense.
Dr. CampbellJones: I’m now seeing those connections that you’re making. I mean, I’m looking at your connection in your line because you had those things there – I don’t want to say for you – a lot of it was just because the way the community was put together. You had those workers, you had all that (unintelligible) – you describe that, but then you described going out into a larger world where, you know, all of that preparation took you out there and you were able to, like, make it through all of that. Then when you came back, couldn’t quite cash the check that was promised, you know, because you still had to go to the side door because of the society. You fast-forward that to the time when you’re now working with kids when you’re 60 years old. They’re now living in this world where there weren’t a lot of cashed checks, right? The kids are now saying, “Wait a minute – we need to know about this. Can you help us through that?” And so, you cashed the check for them.
Mr. Diggs: Right – right. I mean…
Dr. CampbellJones: And it was expected?
Mr. Diggs: Right. Ever since I retired fully, you know, 20 years in the Army, 20 years of civil service, I really feel that I owe it to society to share my knowledge, which I’ve been doing this volunteer work for over 25 years now. I give bus tours trying to attract children to go through these communities – just share history. And when I had built – I got a 500,000 dollar grant from this – well, it was 400 and some thousand – to take this old church that I discovered that was falling down no bigger than a large log cabin – converted it to Diggs-Johnson Museum, where I could really share history with children. When I get buses and things to take them all around, never ever charge. I would go out to the community and secure funds for them because I was 501(c)(3). My group says, you shouldn’t do that – we have to earn money to operate our museum. I am still strongly in my mind not to charge because this might be crazy, but I found that, in some parts of history, I don’t think African Americans really care. When I go out and sell my books, somebody’ll say, “Mr. Diggs, you can’t leave your books there” and somebody would say, “They don’t read – ain’t nobody going to steal any.” Like, we don’t really care about our own history. White churches and organizations – well now that I’m older, I can’t carry stuff around – they are interested in our history much more than African Americans. And I never understood why, but I’m going to continue writing my books until I can’t do it anymore because they might not be able to be interested in history now, but somewhere down the line – I don’t know how many years from now – there might be that interest, and it would be there. When I started, nothing was there.
Dr. CampbellJones: Right. Right. Well, then that kind of gets into the last question I’ve got. If you were to think about, like, universities…
Mr. Diggs: Oh, yes. I want to comment on that.
Dr. CampbellJones: OK. Go ahead.
Mr. Diggs: It strikes me so hard that Morgan State – just could not get support from them. Baltimore County University, UMBC – oh my goodness. I always get help from them. Even on my books, they provide students to work with me. I was a little skeptical there because I am so used to operating individually. I said, no, they may be thinking not the way I’m thinking. Boy, was I ever so wrong. I mean, I used three graduate students on my – I don’t know, third or fourth book – and we talked and I explained how I’d like to get it done. When it was finally done, I mean, we all complemented each other. But the smart thing about it is that when you get these students and they do what they’re supposed to do, they get the grades and that’s it. I was thinking that if I could get students, like, from Morgan who may be interested – history students over there – who may come from Baltimore County, may be interested in helping to put a book together – never happened. They don’t even invite me out there to speak. I always speak at UMBC – always. Goucher – very interesting. Even, Towson University. But interesting – I don’t know why I’m not getting it from…
Dr. CampbellJones: You don’t know what’s going on there, huh?
Mr. Diggs:…Yeah. I’ve never understood – it’s too late now.
Dr. CampbellJones: So, what do you think that would be really, like, if universities – at Morgan, Towson, Goucher, College Park, any of them – and, you know – any university – Loyola … if they were trying to advance, you know, benefits of Americans who are African American, what do you think they ought to be doing?
Mr. Diggs: I think they should be at least getting students to work with me – work with my organization. Goucher’s doing it now. I have a young lady named XYZ, who is working out of Goucher with me and the girl’s extremely interested. She’s gained a lot of knowledge, but her class is over now. I don’t think she’s interested, you know, in coming back. She knew – she wanted to do it, but I couldn’t get her interested to join my nonprofit. This is what I mean. I’d like college students to really come in. I mean, they’re are smart, you know, they seem to be able to do things right, they have interest, of course – they’re history students. I don’t know – I’ve still got three more books that I’ve started. One I’m going to publish by the end of this month. That’s my 11th book. I found that Baltimore County just surprised me as I went through a book and I found all the slaves had joined the United States Colored Regiments during the Civil War, and I got interested. Then I started doing some research. I said, “Oh, my God. I found over 400 slaves and freed slaves and those that ran away from their masters just trying to work their way out of slavery.” So I wrote this book – 500 pages. It’s far too big to go into school. Children would just tear it apart, but teachers could use it as resources. The information is positively truthful because I got it all from The National Archives and I found some individual stories of African Americans from the County that made me wonder, how could people coming out of slavery go to a war for the people that just enslave them? And here they’re trying to get the slaves back. Just amazing bit of information. I can only do so much. Baltimore County, fortunately – and a lot of people don’t believe this – they’d paid for the book that I published. There’s not a lot of money out of my pocket. They allowed me to keep the profit from the sale of the book because they want the history and that’s great. But now, I want to really finish up on my own. I’m paying for my own books so I don’t have to – and I like self-publishing because I don’t want someone to tell me how I should write my book. I feel that, especially as a black man, I don’t need other persuasions to write about my history.
Dr. CampbellJones: So … university needs to be more engaged like that?
Mr. Diggs: I would think so. I would think so. It’s not going to stop me, though. I’ll tell you that. (Laughter)
Dr. CampbellJones: One more thing. When you think about all of the things that happened in Baltimore last year, you know, with all of the uprisings and so on and so forth and all the stuff that happened with – you know, what happened with Freddie Gray was a match that hit, but obviously, there’s a lot there in the first place. When you think about all across your life – you know, segregation, integration, and then last year – what are some of the things that stand out to you when you reflect across?
Mr. Diggs: You know, what really stands out for me that what we saw in 2015 could’ve happened in the 1930s for something blacks were too subdued back then, but I’m sure there were cases where they did rise up against what they feel injustice. But see, but when kids do that, you know, I want to bet you any amount of money that they don’t know the contributions that men that from their own race through generations that lived in Baltimore City what they did to build that city up, hoping that their children would get better opportunities than they did. They don’t realize that’s a tremendous setback for them. And the best thing I found out of it that was that mother that came out and slapped the hell out of that boy, and grabbed him out of participating in it. All the mothers and fathers should’ve done that. Deep down, I believe they don’t know their history or what it is that they’re doing that’s destroying their own history.
Dr. CampbellJones: A lot of loss there.
Mr. Diggs: A lot of loss.
Dr. CampbellJones: Yeah. OK. You got anything else you want to touch on?
Mr. Diggs: Well, gosh. You gave me some very good questions that I wasn’t prepared to answer.
Dr. CampbellJones: All I did was just talk alongside. I’m the prop. (Laughter)
Mr. Diggs: But I’ll tell you, I would not want to see kids go back and repeat history because it wasn’t nice coming up. It was not nice not knowing a mother who, with no father, could not feed her children. And if it wasn’t for myself and many children were out of there, if it wasn’t for the church, we wouldn’t have eaten – believe me. In the same town, St. Peter Claver’s Church – look, there was no welfare, no food stamps and all that – not then. If you didn’t have nothing to eat, then you just (unintelligible). But they provided the dry goods and all in the auditorium once a week. If it wasn’t for that – and that drew everybody closer to the churches. I mean, of course, they do that today, they still do, but it was crucial back then. These people today have the food stamps to fall back on, when we had nothing. And yet still, those families like – I lived on Stricker Street in Sandtown and Schutts. I mean, we thought people that lived off Leslie Street are really poor – that we were not poor, but we did care for the community. Like our street, like other streets, there were trees on the streets, there were lamp lights, nice homes – people took care of their homes. You had to get out and scrub that daggone marble step, whether you liked it or not. You go into the city now, you just – you know, it’s like they stepped way back in time. And the folk that they took the public housing from – they tore them all down, and they placed the people in other communities, like, we got them in Catonsville. I know when I wrote that Turner Station book, my God, I mean, they’d sent them down there and Turner Station is a really unique community of blacks – none of them come from Baltimore. They all came from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina when the Bethlehem Steel opened up there – when that community was really nice. But when they sent them – really the people that needed housing down there, they didn’t really know how to take care of the house or care for the property like they didn’t know what they were doing. And then really kind of played a big part in the deterioration down there. And it was so bad the County wanted to revitalize them, and I think they did very well. But I remember distinctly I was offered a nice sum of money to go down, document their history and – because they thought that’s what they needed to put a little incentive in, you know, the people. and they’re the doing it right now on Winters Lane – same thing. Saint Ambrose is putting big bucks in there trying to revitalize. And I was also – I was asked, you know, could I come for the celebration and set things up? Which I will. I don’t think I’m going to do it. I’m going to be down at my condo during that time.
Dr. CampbellJones: What I hear you talking about is a spark, you know? In the beginning, you described the spark that you said existed in your early days, where people came together no matter how dire the situation. They at least had that light to keep them together. And you’re saying, right now, that spark is missing.
Mr. Diggs: Yes.
Dr. CampbellJones: It’s not there. And so it’s real interesting to see where a spark like that might come from.
Mr. Diggs: That is a good question. You would think the spark would come from the churches, but I don’t think so. I think it’s going to take someone to do something significant, like, I don’t know – there’s so much in the city. When I look at Johns Hopkins and the way they expanded around East Baltimore, you know, I found that the Black Writers’ Guild years ago – Black Writers’ Guild helped black authors or want to be authors get started and it was very popular. And I even offered Baltimore that I could – if they would assist me, which would only involve very little money – my aspiring authors using my books as a template – don’t need to reinvent the wheel, they use that – we could’ve gone to communities – like, all these communities around East Baltimore – they’re gone. Their history is gone. I said to – I can’t think of his name – that we could, you know, at least get the oral interviews and capture whatever we can, publish it – we only asked the County – the City – to pay for the publishing and then, the authors would then share the course of selling the books. And then, out of that little money, they got their history. We haven’t done that in most of the real older African American communities – they said no. I said, that’s a darn shame when here it is Baltimore County, who is very segregated – and of course, they’ve really been over the last few years – generations – they’ve really proven they really help their citizens, period. In Baltimore County, when I asked that – I think Kurt Schmoke was the mayor then – and I wanted to do it – I wanted so bad to document the history of Sandtown I didn’t know what to do with myself. But as year goes by, it goes by. One of these years, I’m going to be gone.
Dr. CampbellJones: OK. I think we’re done.
Mr. Diggs: I hope I did well.
Dr. CampbellJones: That’s very good.
Mr. Diggs: I know the time is run out. I know you’re on a schedule.
Dr. CampbellJones: That was very good use of – that was an hour. That was an hour. You used all of an hour.
Mr. Diggs: I could talk forever to be honest with you.
My memory is about that long, but everything I did in my books and all…
Dr. CampbellJones: When you first came here, you said you didn’t have much to say. I don’t think so. I think you had plenty to say. All I had to do was just crack open a little bit.
Mr. Diggs: You did a darn good job at that, Doc. You did a really good job.