Baltimore County News
Adam J. Youssi, Historical Society of Baltimore County
Unknowingly, most of us go about our daily lives oblivious to the fact we are living, working and traveling beside sites in Baltimore County representing the full gamut of African American history. A simple drive around the Baltimore Beltway takes you within a stone’s throw of historic plantation-style slave sites; past neighborhoods where more than 400 enslaved African Americans joined the Union Army in the Civil War; adjacent to safe houses that once provided refuge to runaway slaves heading north along the Underground Railroad; next to buildings used for segregation during the Jim Crow era, and by a Baltimore County public school, still in use, where the strategy to overturn public school segregation nationwide originated. Yet, this short list barely scratches the surface of the quantity of Baltimore County sites directly connecting us to the tumultuous history of African Americans. While some of the sites may be graced with an interpretive historic marker, others may have no markings whatsoever to indicate their significance. Allow us to take a brief tour to a few sites in recognition and celebration of African American history month.
PLANTATION STYLE SLAVERY
Perhaps the best-known site of African American historical significance in the county is operated by the National Park Service in Towson. It is a stately home and property named Hampton. Hampton was home not only to seven generations of the economically and politically influential Ridgely family, from 1745 to 1948, but also to more than 500 slaves over a 100 year period. Visit Hampton National Historic Site to find out about their interpreted historic tours.
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD SAFE HOUSES
Lesser known are Baltimore County’s safe houses that were utilized by runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad prior to emancipation. Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a congregation in existence since c. 1822, hid runaway slaves who were making their way north, across the border, into Pennsylvania. Another is named the Emmart-Pierpoint Safe House, located at 3523 North Rolling Road near Liberty Road, in Rockdale. This more than 200 year old home is a direct reminder of the atrocities of a slave system that shackled millions, while also standing as a testament to the triumph of the human spirit and the empathy and kindness of perfect strangers in perilous times. The house was donated to Emmarts United Methodist Church, at 7100 Dogwood Road in Windsor Mill in the nineteenth century to act as a safe haven for runaways. This safe house originally stood near the church prior to being relocated to its current location. (Reference: Chris Kaltenbach, Baltimore Sun, April 2, 2011; Louis S. Diggs.)
East Towson, Turner Station in Dundalk and Winters Lane in Catonsville are among Baltimore County’s historically significant African American communities. East Towson developed as an African American community from the mid-1800s into the early 1900s. Many former slaves of the Ridgely family at Hampton, less than two miles north of East Towson, settled in the area, forming the core of the early community.
Winters Lane, now on the National Register of Historic Places, grew between the 1860s and the 1940s in Catonsville, and represented a cohesive African American community that developed in the wake of the Civil War.
Turner Station, located in the far southeast of Baltimore County, at the edge of Dundalk, grew into Baltimore County’s largest African American community after emancipation as a byproduct of the growing steel industry in that area in the 1880s. With industry booming at the Pennsylvania Steel Company (later Bethlehem Steel) in Sparrows Point, and housing in short supply, African Americans from Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina settled nearby in Turner Station, where they brought their religion and culture with them. (Reference: National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination form – East Towsonat the Maryland State Archives; Maryland Historical Trust; Louis S. Diggs, It All Started On Winters Lane.)
STRUCTURES USED FOR SEGREGATION
Next to the historic Baltimore County Almshouse in Cockeysville, constructed as refuge for the county’s poor, indigent and mentally ill, is a lesser known building referred to as the Pest House. The term Pest House is short for pestilence house. The Pest House was intended to be used to house the sick or those with communicable diseases in an era before germ theory was widely understood or adopted. However, documentation suggests the Pest House was more commonly used for the purpose of segregating African American men from the rest of the Almshouse “inmates,” as they were called. Meanwhile, African American women were permitted to reside within the main building, perhaps because the women were far less racialized than the men. With the support of the Historical Society of Baltimore County, who have called the Baltimore County Almshouse their headquarters for more than fifty-years, African American historian Louis S. Diggs is working to secure funding to rehabilitate the Pest House and ultimately make it habitable while preserving its historic integrity. (Reference: Patrick Cutter, “Upland Home,” Historical Society of Baltimore County’s History Trails; Raven Hill, Baltimore Sun, July 31, 2011.)
SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL – CATONSVILLE HIGH SCHOOL
At Catonsville High School, in 1936, a young black girl named Margaret Zimmer was denied admission by the school’s principal based on the color of her skin. Her denial was routine due to the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case of 1896 which legalized segregation. Black children could only attend one of three dedicated black schools in Baltimore City because no black schools existed in the county. The venerable Thurgood Marshall used the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to argue that Margaret Zimmer should be admitted. Although Marshall ultimately failed at the time, his argument was the foundation of the legal strategy that ultimately led to his success in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, ending legal segregation in public schools nationwide. (The Maryland State Archives hosts most documents related to Margaret Zimmer and the Catonsville High School case online.)
NOTABLE AFRICAN AMERICANS & BALTIMORE COUNTY
The sheer volume of notable African Americans who called Baltimore County home is, much like the historic sites, too vast to encompass in a brief article. But among them is a former slave named Augustus Walley, from Bond Avenue in Reisterstown, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1879 for bravery on the Western Frontier. Benjamin Banneker, who has been called “The First African-American Man of Science,” was a largely self-taught scientist, astronomer, farmer, surveyor and almanac author who corresponded with Thomas Jefferson. Banneker’s legacy is shared by the volunteers and staff at the Benjamin Banneker Museum (300 Oella Ave, Oella) in western Baltimore County. There, at least one direct descendant of Banneker still works with the museum and its staff. (Reference: Louis S. Diggs; Carol Sorgen, Baltimore Beacon, February 2013.)
Finally, there is no greater steward of Baltimore County’s African American history and heritage than someone I have had the honor and privilege to call a friend and colleague - Louis S. Diggs. I have no doubt that Mr. Diggs’ list of notable African Americans and sites in Baltimore County would be far more comprehensive than this if he did not already have his hands full managing an African American history non-profit organization, implementing grants to renovate and restore historic African American structures around Baltimore County, finishing his book about slaves in the County who joined the Union Army in the Civil War, or most recently sitting atop the grandstand in Washington D.C. representing African Americans who served in the Korean-American War.
In sum, this is but a taste of the wide array of sites and people the county has to offer in the way of African American history and heritage. We could go many more pages more exploring additional sites: the one-room, African-American schoolhouse in Piney Gove, Boring, dating to the mid-1800s, Mt. Gilboa A.M.E. Church in Oella, which may be the oldest active African American church in the County, dating to the late 1700s, the former Croxall estate named Garrison Ridge (now generally referred to as Garrison Forest ), which was home to dozens of slaves - the property now entirely subdivided into a quaint suburban community. Or, we could explore more notable figures, such as Henrietta Lacks, whose cells from a cancerous tumor still live on and have been used around the world to benefit countless medical and scientific studies. The list goes on, but only if you decide to take a closer look and put in a little effort.
For more information on Baltimore County African American history, visit the Historical Society of Baltimore County. You may visit online or in person at the historic almshouse at 9811 Van Buren Lane in Cockeysville. Or, you may follow the society on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Revised April 6, 2016