Detroit Memorial Park

“One particular occasion was recalled by his son, Charles C. Diggs, Jr., who was riding in the hearse with his father, as he often did. As they neared the cemetery on Woodward Avenue, the superintendent seeing the funeral cars approaching rushed to park his car across the driveway’s front entrance. This time, says Diggs, Jr., his father got angry, climbed out of the hearse and knocked the superintendent down. “As you know,” continued Diggs, Jr., “my father was not a big man, but he was just fed up with that kind of mistreatment.”” – Roberta Hughes Wright, Detroit Memorial Park: The Evolution of an African American Corporation10

Charles C. Diggs, Sr.
Charles C. Diggs, Sr. Courtesy of Jet Magazine, 11 May 1967.

While there were many founders of Detroit’s first African American Corporation, it was undertaker Charles C. Diggs, Sr. who agitated to found a cemetery where Black Detroiters could be buried with dignity. Diggs was already the successful proprieter of House of Diggs Funeral Home, but his role as a funeral director only amplified his frustrations with local cemeteries and their differing policies on race. Taking a page out of the Booker T. Washington playbook, he decided to get other black business owners together to purchase a large plot of land. With limited possibilities in Detroit, he purchased land in what was then Warren Township. While initially there was no issue with the purchase, soon white residents began to protest the residence of the cemetery’s black superintendent on the property.11

To help stall possible conflicts, Diggs and another mortician, Vollington A. Bristol, hurriedly buried the first body on the property, a stillborn infant named Emma L. Brown, on October 30, 1926 in the middle of the night. Little over a week later, the first official adult burial was held.12

Aaron C. Toodle
Aaron C. Toodle. Courtesy of the Aaron C. Toodle Papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Aaron C. Toodle, a pharmacist, was elected the first president of the Detroit Memorial Park Association. Both Toodle and Diggs were politically active, at one time campaigning for the same seat in the State Senate, Toodle as a Republican and Diggs as a Democrat. In the end, it was Diggs who was elected, as the first Black senator in Michigan. He would go on to back civil rights legislation after being denied a room at the hotel across the street from the capitol building. The legislation came to be known as the Diggs civil rights bill, and banned discrimination in public accommodations based on race, creed or color, which made sense considering his passionate feelings on segregation. According to his son, the bill was the first of its kind.13

Detroit Memorial Park served not only as a dignified burial ground for the city’s black population, but also served the living. During World War II, the company set aside plots for families to plant Victory Gardens. This was especially important to those in areas that could not support them, and the land was especially popular with residents of the Brewster Homes Housing Projects.14

Detroit Memorial Park Postcard
Postcard of Detroit Memorial Park. Courtesy of Aaron C. Toodle Papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
dmp
Courtesy of the Michigan Chronicle, 14 Aug 1943.

Most importantly, in April 1942 the board began to discuss the possibility of loaning money from their Perpetual Care Fund, the fund that was meant to pay for upkeep after the plots were filled, to African Americans who were struggling to receive loans for businesses and homes. Many banks wouldn’t even look at the loan applications, and the Association would provide a vital avenue for businesses and home ownership to flourish. They began offering loans a few years after the discussion. As banks became more cooperative, they discontinued the practice, but for a good time they were an important financial institution for Black Detroiters.15

As Diggs’ political career took off, Toodle became the driving force behind the association, serving on the board for 35 years. Importantly, as the board aged he began training the next generation, largely the children and grandchildren of the original board. By doing this, he made sure to ensure the future of this vital institution.16

Detroit Memorial Park has since expanded to include Detroit Memorial Park-West and Greenlawn Cemetery in Flint. The current members of the Board of Directors are all related to the original 1925 investors: Dr. C. Robert Bass DDS, President; Wilbur B. Hughes, III, General Manager; William Andrews, Jr.; Robert Bell Bass; George Dunbar, Jr.; Allen Rawls; Winona Allen Rawls and Roberta Hughes Wright. The most famous internments currently are Elijah McCoy, African American inventor and originater of “The Real McCoy”, and Florence Ballard of The Supremes, as well as both Diggs, Sr. and Jr.

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