A long look at African-American history in Baltimore County
The Baltimore County African American Cultural Festival had all of the usual offerings: musicians performing gospel songs, vendors selling clothes made from African-inspired textiles and booths that dished up soul food favorites like fried fish and collard greens.
But in a corner of the festival in Towson, several groups quietly offered history: stories of Marylanders who played on Negro Leagues baseball teams, of men who served their country as Buffalo Soldiers, and of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells sparked medical discoveries that her family never knew about for years. And they shared the stories of Baltimore County’s 40 recognized historically African-American neighborhoods, which few residents know about.
“If people don’t know from where they came, they don’t know where they are going,” said Mary Radcliffe, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Radcliffe, a retired Baltimore schoolteacher, said few people know that African-Americans have lived in the county for hundreds of years and made significant contributions to society along the way.
Phyllis B. Watkins, another member of the chapter, said that people are always surprised when they learn about the “rich history” of African-Americans in the county. “So many of them thought AfricanAmericans did not exist in Baltimore County,” she said. “When they come in here, it just blows their mind.”
The centerpiece of the festival’s history zone was a tent filled with long tables displaying dozens of posters covered with pictures from the county’s 40 AfricanAmerican enclaves. The posters are the culmination of decades of work by Louis Diggs, who canvassed each one of the neighborhoods collecting photos and documenting oral histories.
Some of the neighborhoods are wellknown, like the east county neighborhood of Turners Station, where Lacks lived when her cancer cells were taken by Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors to be used in research. Or East Towson, which recently unveiled a marker explaining how the community was founded by freed slaves.
Members of the Baltimore Buffalo Soldiers displayed authentic and reproduction equipment used by the Buffalo Soldiers, a name given to African-American cavalry units who primarily fought in the Indian wars in the West in the late 1800s.