House of Diggs

This post is from a recent issue of the Little Detroit History Letter, an email newsletter I occasionally send about Detroit history, news, tours, and events. Subscribe here

house of diggs - postcard - crop

Vintage postcard advertising the House of Diggs funeral home

Charles Diggs Sr. was fed up with cemeteries. It was 1925, and if you were black, cemeteries could flat-out refuse to bury your loved ones. Like racially restrictive covenants* that prevented black families from purchasing property in certain neighborhoods, some cemeteries made it part of their policy to bury only white bodies in their grounds. (As just one local example, in his book Boneyards, Richard Bak cites the regulation book at Grand Lawn Cemetery: “The cemetery is limited without exception to the use of the Caucasian race.”) Others just humiliated their black customers, offering inflated pricing, rude service, and their shabbiest plots.

Diggs was a mortician and owner of the House of Diggs, a funeral home in the Black Bottom neighborhood, which he founded in 1921. Over the next 30 years, Diggs built a business empire around the House of Diggs, with an in-house florist (the House of Flowers, of course), a fleet of Imperial hearses, and a burial insurance company, the first of its kind in Detroit.

imperial funeral fleet

Charles Diggs’ fleet of Imperial hearses.

In 1925, he founded the state’s first black-owned cemetery, Detroit Memorial Park. The cemetery, located in Warren, provided a place for black patrons to bury and grieve with dignity. Singer Florence Ballard of The Supremes, the novelist Donald Goines, and Detroit’s “real McCoys,” inventor Elijah and renowned club woman Mary McCoy, are all buried at Detroit Memorial Park.

Cemetery discrimination in Michigan continued until well into the 1960s. In one infamous case, Native American World War I Veteran George Vincent Nash was buried with his white wife at White Chapel Memorial Park — only to be promptly disinterred, because his burial there violated the cemetery’s whites-only policy. The Michigan Supreme Court finally ruled in 1966 that cemeteries could not restrict plot purchases by race, under the same U.S. Supreme Court precedent that had ruled restrictive real estate covenants unconstitutional in 1948.

Charles Diggs’ influence expanded beyond the funeral business in 1937, when he became the first black Democrat elected to the Michigan Senate. He was a founder of the Michigan Federated Democratic Clubs, which encouraged many black Michiganders to switch their party allegiance from Republican to Democrat — and, in some cases, to run for office.

His son Charles Diggs Jr. made more history in 1955 when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first black person from Michigan to serve in the U.S. Congress. Diggs Jr. was also one of the original 13 founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with John Conyers, Shirley Chisholm, and Charlie Rangel, and was the Caucus’s first chairman. (And yep, this is the same bipartisan group of African American legislators that our President rudely assumed is friends with every other black person in Washington D.C.)


Founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Charles Diggs is seated front and center, to Shirley Chisholm’s right. Public domain.

Charles Diggs Jr. inherited the House of Diggs after his father died in 1967. The elder Diggs committed suicide at Detroit Memorial Hospital after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage and a stroke, jumping from his fourth-floor hospital room window to his death. Charles Diggs Jr.’s inheritance caused problems for him in his political career; it’s too long of a story to relate in this ostensibly little letter. Suffice to say, the political careers of both Diggs men were interrupted by scandal and corruption.

JET Magazine published a remembrance of Diggs Sr. and speculated about what might have led to his suicide. It also questioned the Free Press for their portrayal of Diggs in its obituary:

A local newspaper ran a Diggs obituary and accompanied it with a big-hatted, gangster-looking photo of Senior Diggs taken in the 1940s. “They always run that picture,” Carter complained, “even though they have a large file of other more recent pictures.”

One more footnote that illustrates how the Diggs family lived within and struggled against segregated institutions and systems: they lived, for a time, in the old Dunbar Hospital, founded to provide basic health care for black Detroiters at a time when most of the city’s hospitals treated only whites. When the Dunbar Hospital expanded to a new location in 1928, Charles Diggs Sr. bought the old building; Charles Diggs Jr. grew up there.

Further reading about Charles Diggs Sr.: from historian Ken Coleman in the Michigan Chronicle, and from the blog The Business of Black Death.

*One of the cases that went to the Supreme Court and ultimately ruled racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional was that of Detroiters Orsel and Minnie McGhee, whose home still stands at 4626 Seebaldt Street. The 1948 decision Shelley vs. Kramer reflects the consideration of several Supreme Court cases on racially restrictive covenants, including the McGhee case.

#charles diggs#charles diggs jr.#congressional black caucus#detroit cemeteries#funeral homes#house of diggs#segregation


  1. Detroitish - June 3, 2017 @ 7:41 am

    Corruption at the House of Diggs seems to have gone fairly deep. Diggs, Sr. as a state senator investigated the practice of burying paupers at Eloise, the Wayne County home for indigents and mental patients, in the 1930s, deemed it illegal and then became sole provider in servicing that need between 1939 and 1941. Which seems like a major ethics violation and is probably why he was once again investigated. Not to mention that his son Charles, then aged 14, by his own account was handling the burials at the institution due to his lighter skin tone. Being that the vast majority of pauper burials were of white men it would have been seen as improper for the darker-skinned Diggs, Sr. to officiate. Such were the times though corruption among the successful seems compulsory in every era.

  2. M. A. Browne - September 26, 2019 @ 7:43 pm

    Hello…I have been pleasantly surprised at finding these articles about Charles C. Diggs, Sr. and his son Charles C. Diggs, Jr. I am a genealogy researcher for my family and have been researching for my family on the death of Emma Cook, my late father’s youngest sister. Not until yesterday did I realize who conducted her funeral in July 1928. It was the senior Senator Diggs. It was totally by accident that I received just the name Diggs and then the first name after a search.
    We have been searching for a photo of my Aunt Emma who was savagely killed by her husband in Flint, Michigan July 06, 1928 one day after her 20th birthday. I had hoped that the funeral home would have an archived program with her photo. Haven’t found that, but at least I now know where she is buried and who conducted her service. I will continue researching to learn if the House of Diggs is still in operation by descendants of the Diggs family. I will also research Anna Diggs. Can you tell me if there were any children and whether the House of Diggs dynasty continues?
    Thank you very much.

    M. A. Browne

  3. Brenda A. Ward - June 4, 2020 @ 11:40 am

    I need assistance in locating a grave. The services were handled by The House of Diggs in September 1964. I’ve conducted numerous searches with negative results. The individual I’m searching for his my Step-Dad, Robert L. Hairston.

    I’m desperate to have this information. I’d like to visit his grave.

    Any assistance you can give me would be appreciated.

  4. Sharon Getties Johnson - July 8, 2020 @ 4:41 pm

    We are seeking information on my husbands father, James Monroe Johnson. He died in 1960 or 61 and the funeral was handled by Diggs Funeral Home. JMJ was in his 40s and worked for Ford Motors. He lived on 3627 Orleans Street in Detroit

  5. GERALD E SHELDON - August 9, 2020 @ 3:01 pm

    In 1960 and again in 1961 Congressman Charles C Diggs, JR, gave me an Appointment to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. The home address on my appointment was 689 Mack Avenue – you can see from the picture at the top of this page, that this was The House of Diggs.
    The Congressman frequently allowed the Athletic Department to use his Academy Appointments to help worth candidates that also played sports to gain admittance! Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem, NY, did the same thing. Usually those nominees were white – a sad commentary on the times!
    Congressman Diggs and I corresponded off and on right up until his passing. I spent 24 years as a US Navy Submariner and retired as a Commander.
    I was and am forever indebted to the Congressman – he and I never met face to face!

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