Museum celebrates African-Americans’ heritage

Building being upgraded to meet disabilities law

Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007

Click here to enlarge this photo
Staff Photos by Nancy Bromley McConaty
Mary Boyd, president of the African-American Heritage Society of Charles County Inc., talks about the accomplishments of legendary baseball pitcher Leroy ‘‘Satchel” Paige in the Children’s Room of the Heritage House museum on U.S. 301 in La Plata.

Click here to enlarge this photo
Boyd stands in front of the museum.

William A. Diggs dreamed more than 30 years ago of creating a museum of African-American artifacts that told a tale of slavery in Charles County.

Diggs, who died in 1995 and whose name now graces an elementary school in Waldorf, wanted to establish a museum where schoolchildren could learn and take pride in the hardships endured by their ancestors — pride they would carry into adulthood.

The African-American Heritage Society of Charles County Inc. — a nonprofit organization founded by Diggs in 1974 — is slowly realizing that dream. In 1999, the society purchased a split-level house on U.S. 301 near Stagecoach Crossing Road in La Plata and opened a museum of artifacts that Diggs collected during his lifetime.

It is hard to imagine by looking at the outside of the Heritage House museum what treasures lie within its modest walls.

There are handmade tools, dolls, furniture, clothing and kitchen utensils once owned by local African-Americans during slavery. There are also documents that belonged to enslaved persons that depict the hard lives they lived during that era.

Posters of famous African-Americans dot the walls, including Leroy ‘‘Satchel” Paige, a pitcher with the Negro Leagues and later the Cleveland Indians.

There are also posters and photographs of Matthew Henson, who explored the North Pole with U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Robert Peary in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Josiah Henson, one of the conductors of the Underground Railroad — a system that quietly helped slaves escape north to freedom during the Civil War.

And, of course, there are photographs of Diggs — a man who has inspired many adults and children to reach for the stars, said Mary Boyd, president of the African-American Heritage Society of Charles County.

Born in Chicamuxen, Diggs taught at Bel Alton High School and the F.B. Gwynn Educational Center in La Plata until his retirement. He served as the society’s president until his death.

Boyd recalled listening to Diggs discuss slavery in Charles County during a Black History Month program at the community college in La Plata in the 1980s.

The students were not the only listeners who were spellbound by his tales, Boyd said, who taught at the college at the time.

‘‘I was just mesmerized listening to him tell those kids about history,” she said, smiling. ‘‘I forgot that I had a class. He was fascinating. You could tell he loved it so much just by the way he expressed himself when he talked.”

For many years, Diggs’ collection sat in an old Charles County public school building on Bumpy Oak Road in Pomonkey, Boyd said. But the building was not in good shape, and the artifacts needed to find a permanent home.

‘‘It really wasn’t a place where you could display things,” she said.

Diggs and Mary Louise Webb, the society’s vice president, often took the artifacts on the road, traveling to schools and other places to display the collection, Boyd said — a task Webb still does today.

The society has also sponsored historical exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution and various churches, colleges and libraries throughout the state.

The society plans to display exhibits of the collection at Friendship House on the La Plata campus of the College of Southern Maryland during the county’s 350th anniversary celebration next year.

Although a lot has been accomplished, there is still work to be done at the museum, including retrofitting the house to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Boyd said. The society has obtained a $300,000 state bond to make the improvements, including widening doorways, enlarging the restroom and installing an elevator.

The Charles County commissioners pitched in a few years ago by making a gravel driveway and a parking area large enough for buses to turn around in, Boyd said. The society hopes to have the ADA work completed by next summer.

‘‘We have really worked to get this place together,” she said. ‘‘It’s hard work. And, let me tell you, if you don’t know how to do it you certainly learn as you go.”

The society is trying to pay off the mortgage on the house by holding a pledge drive, Boyd said. Twenty-eight of the organization’s 60-plus members have made $1,000 pledges for the project.

Several residents helped the society obtain the house loan, Boyd said, including local retired engineer John Dockery; Dana Jones, the now-retired longtime director of the Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee Inc.; and William Turner, formerly of the Bank of Southern Maryland.

It is very important for everyone to learn the fascinating and sometimes painful history of enslaved African-Americans in Charles County, Boyd said.

‘‘We’ve got to grab the interest of our young people,” she said. ‘‘History can be taught in a positive or negative fashion. Lots of times, African-Americans are taught only the negative aspects of their history. They’re not being told the whole story.”

Boyd, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, said young African-Americans must realize how lucky they are to live in this country.

‘‘I’m concerned about young people with negative attitudes,” she said. ‘‘I wish that I could take kids with me around the world so that they can see we’re not at the bottom of the bucket.

‘‘When I used to listen to Mr. Diggs talk about slavery, it didn’t depress me,” she added. ‘‘It made me proud.”