Although he weighed only 135 pounds soaking wet, Charles C. Diggs, Sr. was a Joe Louis-like heavyweight champion on the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley business and political scene.
On January 2, 1894, Diggs, the son of church leader and a school teacher, was born in Issaquena County, Mississippi, located in the Delta region on the border of Arkansas and Louisiana.
Diggs trekked to Detroit and on January 2, 1921 opened a funeral home in a tiny store front located on St. Antoine Street and East Adams in the heart of Paradise Valley, and later at 1391 Mullet Street at Russell in Black Bottom. Although James H. Cole holds the distinction of being the first black businessman in Detroit to lay death victims to rest with dignity in 1919, the House of Diggs became one of the most recognized.
Charles Diggs, Sr. also dabbled in related business interests. During the 1920s, blacks faced unspeakable discrimination and racism when it came to securing burial grounds. To address the inequity, in 1925, Diggs, a one-time follower of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and other prominent blacks co-founded Detroit Memorial Park, a cemetery. He also created Detroit Metropolitan Mutual Assurance Company, a full-service life insurance firm, which at one point secured $10 million worth of business. Diggs would later operate a realty business and a flower shop.
By the early 1930s, he become more politically active and in 1933 was appointed to the Michigan Parole Commission. During these years, Diggs was concerned about black’s placing the lion’s share of their votes in the hands of the Republican Party, although it was the party of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Diggs, along with Joseph Coles and attorneys Harold E. Bledsoe and Joseph Craigen, formed the Michigan Federated Democratic Clubs and convinced thousands of blacks to join.
On November 7, 1936, he became the only the second black elected to the Michigan senate—and the first Democrat. He immediately championed historic civil rights efforts in Lansing, as well as fair and equal employment. In fact, his signature legislation in 1937, known to many as the “Diggs Law,” made discrimination on the basis of race, color, or creed a misdemeanor.
He and wife, Mayme, had only son, Charles, Jr. The younger Diggs became the first black man in Michigan history to serve on Capitol Hill joining Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York, and William L. Dawson of Chicago as the only three black members on the 435-person U.S House of Representatives.
After his legislative career, Diggs remained at active in local business and investment on the African continent until his death on at 73 years old on April 25, 1967.
Ken Coleman writes frequently about black life in Detroit. He can be reached at historylivesDetroit.com