Dr. Irene Diggs: An extraordinary anthropologist

Herb Boyd | 9/4/2014, 4:49 p.m.

Special to the AmNews

In the foreword of his book “The World and Africa,” pre-eminent scholar and historian W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “I am indebted to my assistant, Dr. Irene Diggs, for efficient help in arranging the material and reading the manuscript.”

This wasn’t the first time Du Bois praised the work and expertise of Diggs; she was there for many of his most illustrious publications. While she often toiled in the background—in the footnotes, so to speak—of Du Bois’ production, she was not without her own contributions, particularly as an anthropologist in Latin American affairs.

Ellen Irene Diggs was born in the college town of Monmouth, Ill., April 13, 1906, and came of age in a working-class family steeped in the notion that education was the stepping stone to success and personhood. Always studious and industrious, she was awarded an academic scholarship to Monmouth College, but after a year there, she transferred to the University of Minnesota, where she earned her B.A. in 1928. Later, at Atlanta University, she pursued a graduate degree in anthropology and began studying and working with Du Bois.

She played a vital role in research, fact-checking and assembling Du Bois’ magnum opus, “Black Reconstruction” (1935). All the while she was working on master’s degree in sociology, which she was awarded in 1933. For the next eight years, she was an indispensable collaborator with Du Bois, as he completed such works as “Black Folk, Then and Now” (1939), “The Encyclopedia of the Negro” (1945), and at the same time was a co-founder of the prestigious journal Phylon: A Review of Race and Culture.

Soon she began to venture out on her own. Cuba was her next stop after receiving a Roosevelt fellowship from the University of Havana. During her stay, she conferred regularly with Fernando Ortiz, the noted Cuban historian who was an expert on the African connection to Cuba. While on the island and in the academy, Diggs concentrated on how the music and dance of Africa manifested in Cuban culture. She recorded the music, collected folklore through interviews and photographed urban and rural festivals. Inevitably, race and race relations became an integral part of her studies, especially as they differed in the United States and Latin America.

From 1947 to 1976, she taught at Morgan State College. Meanwhile, she continued her phenomenal research and travel as well as an affiliation with a number of scholarly organizations and publications, including the American Anthropological Association, the Society for Applied Anthropology and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. She was a tireless promoter of the discipline and noted that “anthropology can be, if properly taught, one of the most beneficial subject’s Blacks and whites can study.”

Diggs published widely and most consistently in Crisis, the NAACP’s journal. Her article on Uruguay in 1946 is an example of her groundbreaking work in cross-cultural studies. Moreover, some of her articles have been translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese—languages in which she possessed some fluency. Extremely personable and well read on current affairs, she was often a guest commentator on radio and television in Baltimore and the D.C. area.

In 1978, she was saluted by the Association of Black Anthropologists for her contributions to the study of the African Diaspora in Latin America. Among her selected works are “The Negro in the Vice Royalty of Rio de la Plata,” Journal of Negro History (1951); “Cuba Before and After Castro,” the New American (1976); “Black Chronology from 4000 B.C. to the Abolition of the Slave Trade” (1983); and “Legacy” in Freedomways’ memorial issue that was devoted to Du Bois.

In the memorial issue published in 1965, she wrote of Du Bois, saying, “In some respects he was a lonely man, a resigned man who carried the self-imposed burden of the non-white peoples of the world; a man who recognized the relationship between the oppressed non-whites and the ‘poor whites.’ … Du Bois knew the importance of integrity, excellence, documentation, verification, the marshaling of evidence. The nimbleness of his intellect was observable in the question-and-answer period following a lecture, in his classes, in his repartee with both admirers and detractors.

“He is not likely to be remembered as or made a saint—there will not be many myths about Du Bois, but history will record him as an extraordinarily productive writer, an unrelenting advocate of human dignity, a believer in the primacy of human conscience, a gentle jovial human being with a disarming air of simplicity, tough of purpose, with a biting but warm sense of satirical humor, persistent in his demands, shy but unafraid.”

Of all the notables summoned to remark on Du Bois’ life, few were as close and for as long as Diggs was to the great man, and she knew well his work ethic, his sense of scholarship and his camaraderie, all of which she dutifully ascribed to her mentor.

Though she retired from Morgan State in 1976, according to the school’s website, Diggs continued to conduct research and held an emeritus professorship at the University of Maryland.

Diggs died March 15, 1998, in Baltimore, Md.