Know Your History

Irene Diggs Was More Than W.E.B. DuBois’s Assistant

The anthropologist’s storied career extended far beyond her work alongside men.

Office of the NAACP’ S Crisis Magazine where Irene Diggs worked, 1910. Photo: George Rinhart/Getty Images

On the east side of Baltimore City, Morgan State University stands as a pillar of Black history and culture with a legacy spanning over 150 years. The university began as Centenary Biblical Institute before being renamed Morgan College in 1890 with the status of university granted in 1975. Home to the infamous Morgan State Bears, the university overflows with the names of iconic Black figures such as James Baldwin, Harriet Tubman, and Benjamin Banneker. Amidst the rapid gentrification facing Baltimore’s historic east side, Morgan State University stands out as a reminder that Black life has been and always will be the heartbeat of the city.

Beyond the university’s physical structure, its library showcases the beauty of Black history and literature. Each floor holds a vast history of Black excellence. Tucked away on the third floor of the library you will find the Davis Room archives. Inside, archivist Ida Jones and others work to document Baltimore’s long history, including the record of Black feminism in Baltimore. Scholars like Jones chronicle the Black feminist history of Baltimore and combat the ongoing omission of Black women. Routinely, Black women are pushed to the margins of history. Even worse, sometimes this marginalization is coupled with the tragedy of misinformation as their Black male counterparts are credited with their brilliance.

Her work as a professor and activist highlight a tradition of Black women using their career networks to build solidarity and advocate for Black liberation across the diaspora.

Anthropologist Irene Diggs is one example. A professor at Morgan State University and activist, Diggs is often cited for her work as the primary research assistant to W.E.B. DuBois yet, Diggs’ legacy deserves a lane of its own. Her work as a professor and activist highlights a tradition of Black women using their career networks to build solidarity and advocate for Black liberation across the diaspora.

Born in Ellen Irene Diggs in 1906 in Monmouth, Illinois, Irene Diggs was a scholar of Afro-Latin culture with degrees from the University of Minnesota, Atlanta University, and the University of Havana. While at Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University, she met W. E. B DuBois and her impressive scholarship earned her a job as his research assistant. Some of her duties included managing his correspondence with publications and reading his manuscripts. Yet, Diggs’ own work on the musical linkages between Africa and Latin America proved interesting to intellectuals throughout the diaspora. After being awarded the first master’s degree in anthropology from Atlanta University in 1933 she continued to work with DuBois while simultaneously continuing her studies in Latin America. In the early 1940s, she ventured to the University of Havana to pursue her doctorate. While in Havana, she also worked with Cuban historian Fernando Ortiz and continued working with him after her graduation in 1945.

In fall 1975, Diggs taught a young Black woman who would go on to be one of the most influential poets of the 20th century: Gwendolyn Brooks.

DuBois credits Diggs with helping him accomplish some of his famous publications. In the foreword to his 1946 book The World and Africa, DuBois writes “I am indebted to my assistant, Dr. Irene Diggs, for efficient help in arranging the material and reading the manuscript.” Diggs’ expertise in Black culture and history proved invaluable to DuBois’ scholarship.

Diggs as a high school student, 1923.

History often relegates Diggs to the footnotes of DuBois’ legacy, but her own studies demand more exploration. Her own work proves her outstanding critical thinking and engagement with Black music, dance, and liberation. Moreover, Diggs exemplifies a tradition of Black feminist scholarship-activism. Her tenure as professor at Morgan State College, now Morgan State University, combined with her travels to Cuba, South Africa, and Egypt (among other places) showcase a transnational Black liberatory politic inside and outside the classroom.

Diggs taught at Morgan from 1947 to 1976. Her courses centered on race and racism as she taught students to interrogate their understandings of power and identity. One of her courses in anthropology listed as “Minorities” challenged students to learn about marginalized racial, ethnic, and religious communities. Diggs’ status as a professor at a historically Black college (HBCU) allowed her to teach, and engage, some of the foremost Black thinkers, writers, and artists. In fall 1975, Diggs taught Minorities and the class featured one of the most poignant poets of the 20th century: Gwendolyn Brooks. The scholar-activist tradition of Black feminists includes a legacy of community building and mentorship within the academy.

Beyond her courses, Diggs’ scholarship-activism was apparent in articles she wrote for The Crisis and other publications. Throughout her career she wrote about Black communities internationally and the transnational commonalities of Black culture. Moreover, she served as the secretary for organizations and organized conferences such as The Special Committee Against Apartheid which convened in May 1976 in Havana demanding the end of apartheid. In 1983, Diggs published her first and only book Black Chronology which chronicles historic dates in Black history from 4,000 B.C. to the abolition of the slave trade.

Diggs also joins Claudia Jones and other Black women using their writing to critique the dangers of capitalism. Her experience in the United States and Latin America pushed Diggs toward an anti-capitalist ideology. In an article for A Current Bibliography of African Affairs, Diggs compares the work of W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. In this piece, Diggs critiques Garvey’s “firm belief in the capitalist system.” Despite these critiques, Diggs does not dismiss Garvey nor Garveyism. Instead, she asserts that Garveyism is useful for young college students thinking about Black liberation. Diggs did not dispose of Black scholars or activists opting for an approach that honored the lives and work of those willing to work for Black liberation.

Despite her work throughout the United States, Latin America, and Africa, Diggs is rarely included in discussions of critical Black scholars of the 20th century. She is infrequently mentioned and often her legacy is reduced to her relationship with DuBois. Cedric J. Robinson is one scholar who cites Diggs, but even this mention in his book Black Marxism is brief though he does connect he work on Brazil to the larger historical archaeology of the Black radical tradition. Anti-Black racism, sexism, and misogynoir work together to push Irene Diggs into the margins of anthropology and Black history.

Irene Diggs worked transnationally in pursuit of Black liberation. Her work with students, colleagues, and working-class women throughout the African diaspora shows a commitment to community. Diggs provides one example of the striking continuity between the academic careers and activism of Black feminists whose Black liberatory politics permeated their lives.

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