Many Black funeral homes in Detroit became family practices. Charles C. Diggs, Sr., founded his House of Diggs Funeral Home in 1921, and his son Charles C. Diggs, Jr., was born the next year. Diggs, Jr. grew up in what was formerly Dunbar Hospital in Detroit, the first hospital in the city that both employed and serviced African Americans.1
In 1933, Diggs was appointed as the state’s first black parole commissioner. It was his first political office, but not his last. In 1936 he was elected to the State Senate as a Democrat. He was the first Black senator in the state. When he arrived for his first legislative session, he was denied a room at the Olds Hotel, across the street from the state capitol building in Lansing. This inspired him to introduce legislation to ban segregation in public accommodations, a bill which was later passed as the Diggs Law. According to his son, it was the first of its kind.2
“It was the cornerstone, not only of his active political career, but the foundation of additional civil rights legislation in other states, including the outlawing of discrimination in employment and and other areas, plus policy changes with the structure and organization of the Democratic party.” – Charles C. Diggs, Jr., Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes
Diggs, Sr. would hold office until 1944, when a bribery scandal sent him to prison. When he was released in 1950, he ran again, successfully, for the State Senate, but Republicans in Congress refused him the seat, their reasoning being that his conviction barred him from serving. In response, his son took a leave from law school to run in the special election for his seat. In 1951, his son succeeded him in the State Senate, later going on to become the first African American congressman from Michigan. He would serve until his resignation in 1980.3
Between successful political campaigns, both Diggs men kept a hold in the undertaking business. In 1942, that business expanded to include the Metropolitan Funeral System Insurance Company. While burial insurance was incredibly common in the South, Diggs’ company was one of the first in Detroit. African Americans brought the practice north with them during the Great Migration. Burial insurance guaranteed that a person’s loved ones would be able to afford to bury them with dignity. As one of these migrants, Diggs, Sr. saw an opportunity to expand his funeral business. He was also instrumental in the founding of Detroit Memorial Park, the first black cemetery in Detroit.
As an advertisement for the Metropolitan Funeral System, Diggs, Jr. hosted a weekly radio show. The usual program consisted of current events and intermittent gospel music. Diggs continued his program through his tenure in Congress, at one point raising money for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Diggs was no stranger to Civil Rights legislation. 4
While he had not planned in following his father into politics, he took up the mantle with gusto. Early in his tenure, he attended the trial of the two men accused of murdering Emmett Till. When he found that the county in which the case was being tried had no registered Black voters, he charged that Mississippi should lose representatives from Congress, as ordered in the 14th Amendment. Diggs also was a formative member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which originated as the Democratic Select Committee in 1969 as a way for the relatively few Black representatives to network ideas. It eventually evolved into the more politically-formidable Black Caucus in 1971. 5
Diggs, Sr. had died in 1969, and Diggs, Jr. was running the House of Diggs from afar, but he remained at it’s head. Eventually, his second wife Anna, a prominent Detroit lawyer, would get a degree in mortuary science to help her husband run the funeral home, continuing family practice.
Diggs remained the symbolic leader of the House of Diggs, but he spent much of his time in Washington, working toward Civil Rights. He was incredibly popular, and in a largely black district, he was reelected time and time again. Like his father, Diggs’ career ended in a scandal. In 1978, he was indicted by a grand jury on charges of taking kickbacks,and was convicted, but he maintained his innocence through a series of appeals. The scandal did not hurt his popularity in Detroit, and even after being convicted, his constituents re-elected him again. Unlike his father, he was allowed to represent his electors after his conviction, but he resigned from committees and was eventually censured by Congress. Diggs, insulted by the conviction and censure, resigned from his seat in June 1980. He went back to his original trade, opening a funeral home in Maryland and working there until his death in 1998.6