Dictionary of Virginia Biography

James Robert Lincoln Diggs (d. 14 April 1923), president of Virginia Theological Seminary and College (later Virginia University of Lynchburg), was born between 1865 and 1867, probably on 7 November, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He was the son of John Henry Diggs and Mary Virginia Clark Diggs. Little is known about his childhood or youth. Diggs was living in Washington, D.C., in 1885 when he converted from Catholicism and joined the city's Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. The following year he graduated from the normal department of Wayland Seminary, a Washington educational institution for African Americans. Diggs spent four years teaching in Maryland public schools before he returned to Wayland, where he taught while acquiring a college preparatory degree. He received a B.A. from Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1898 and an M.A. the next year. Diggs married Alberta M. Pack, or Peck, in Hinton, West Virginia, on 5 June 1901. They had two sons and four daughters.

Diggs rejoined Wayland's faculty in 1898. The following year Wayland merged with Richmond Theological Seminary, in Virginia, to become Virginia Union University, and Diggs moved to Richmond shortly after he was ordained as a Baptist minister on 25 September 1899. Though Virginia Union was affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia, an African American organization known for its cooperationist stance with white Baptist groups, Diggs expressed views in the institution's University Journal that more closely aligned with those of the more-independent race-men affiliated with the Virginia Baptist State Convention, which supported the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, in Lynchburg. In his writings he argued for a positive appraisal of Reconstruction and viewed restrictions on suffrage as a violation of the citizenship rights granted to African American men under the Constitution. He called on blacks to show more pride in their African heritage. Diggs buttressed his local profile by occasionally giving speeches and sermons. He and several other university professors aided African American community leaders who protested the segregation of Richmond's streetcars by starting a boycott that lasted from 1904 until 1906.

Diggs also began focusing on national issues. Meeting secretly with twenty-eight other African Americans near Niagara Falls, Ontario, in 1905, Diggs helped found the Niagara Movement, a predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He served as Virginia state secretary for the new organization, which advocated equal rights, better educational opportunities, and the ending of segregation. Diggs helped provide financial backing for the organization's journal, Horizon, and by the end of the year the Niagara Movement had 170 members. In later years he presided over the NAACP's Baltimore branch.

After a brief period studying at Cornell University, Diggs received a doctorate in sociology from Illinois Wesleyan University in June 1906, reportedly the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in the subject. In August of that year State University (later Simmons College of Kentucky), in Louisville, operated by the General Association of Colored Baptists in Kentucky, selected Diggs as its president. Chosen despite the more-conservative political environment among black Baptists in Kentucky, Diggs touted the university as the best of its kind that black men independently ran. In 1908 he accepted the presidency of Virginia Theological Seminary and College (later Virginia University of Lynchburg), a religious institution that also offered academic, vocational, and business courses. He was installed on 2 October of that year. The seminary's original building was completed during his term, and Diggs added Hebrew to the curriculum.

On 12 July 1909, writing on seminary stationery, Diggs addressed a letter to William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the leader of the Niagara Movement, suggesting a ten-volume history of Reconstruction, as part of a planned encyclopedia of African American history, to counter recent scholarship that depicted Reconstruction as harmful to southern society. Diggs wanted "proper credit given our people for what of good they really did in those trying days." Diggs's letter may have further spurred Du Bois's interest in the subject, encapsulated in his landmark book, Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Diggs and Du Bois were among the signers of a widely distributed leaflet attacking a series of speeches that Booker Taliaferro Washington gave in the United Kingdom in 1910 that presented an overly optimistic view of American racial relations.

Diggs left Virginia Theological Seminary and College in October 1911 and spent three years as the dean of the literary and college departments of Selma University, in Alabama. He then returned to Maryland, where for about four years he served as president of Clayton-Williams University, a small coeducational school and theological seminary operated by Baltimore Baptists. A government assessment in 1915 reported that the three-person faculty taught sixteen students who met occasionally in dirty classrooms, although by 1919 Diggs was reporting a student body of fifty-six. In 1918 he also taught French at Howard University.

Diggs's final years of teaching overlapped with his emerging role as a pastor. In 1914 he served as the minister of the First Baptist Church of Georgetown, in Washington, and later that year or early the next he became pastor of Baltimore's Trinity Baptist Church. Although Diggs continued corresponding with Du Bois through at least 1919, he became involved with the National Equal Rights League, which took a more-militant approach to advocating racial equality. His Baltimore church played host to the league's 1920 convention, at which Diggs was elected the NERL's second vice president.

By September 1921 he was serving as president of Baltimore Division No. 72 of the United Negro Improvement Association, a pan-African and black nationalist organization founded by Marcus Garvey that advocated a back-to-Africa movement, black pride, and cultural separation. Garvey spoke at Diggs's church on three consecutive nights in February 1922, drawing attention from the U.S. Bureau of Investigation. On 27 July 1922, suffering from terminal cancer, Diggs was the UNIA's acting chaplain general and presided at Garvey's second marriage ceremony. A few days later at the group's national convention he issued a defense of Garvey's leadership of the UNIA, which was under criticism for mounting debts. Diggs cited biblical backing for the movement, issued a call for racial unity, and discussed his disenchantment with the NAACP. He told the convention's members: "I was born here, but I am not afraid to die in Africa." Late in August, Diggs became the official chaplain general of the UNIA, but his health was so poor that he soon entered a hospital. James Robert Lincoln Diggs died of cancer at his Baltimore home on 14 April 1923 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in J. J. Pipkin, ed., The Story of a Rising Race . . . (1902), 425–426 (with portrait and birth date of 1865), Frank Lincoln Mather, ed., Who's Who of the Colored Race (1915), 91 (with birth date of 7 Nov. 1866 and parents' names), George F. Bragg Jr., Men of Maryland (1925), 138–139 (birth dates of 7 Nov. 1866 and 7 Nov. 1867), Diamond Jubilee of the General Association of Colored Baptists in Kentucky (1943), 36–37 (birth date of 7 Nov. 1867), and Randall K. Burkett, Black Redemption: Churchmen Speak for the Garvey Movement (1978), 98–111; Marriage Register (age thirty-five on 5 June 1901), Summers Co., W.Va.; matriculation card (age thirty-seven on 13 Feb. 1903) in Non-residents Degree Program registrar's book, Tate Archives and Special Collections, Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, Ill.; some correspondence in W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (first quotation in Diggs to Du Bois, 12 July 1909), University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and printed in Louis R. Harlan et al., eds., The Booker T. Washington Papers (1972–1989), 10:422–425; publications include Diggs, "The Necessity for High Moral Character in the Teacher," in I. Garland Penn and J. W. E. Bowen, eds., The United Negro: His Problems and His Progress (1902), 410–412, "Negro Church Life," The Voice of the Negro 1 (1904): 46–50 (widely reprinted, for example in Cleveland Gazette, 8 July 1911), "Is It Ignorance or Slander: The Answer to Thomas Nelson Page," The Voice of the Negro 1 (1904): 228–233, and sermon at the 1922 UNIA national convention in Negro World, 5 Aug. 1922 (second quotation); death notices in Baltimore American, 15, 16 Apr. 1923; obituary in Baltimore Afro-American, 20 Apr. 1923.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Matthew S. Gottlieb.

How to cite this page:
Matthew S. Gottlieb,"James Robert Lincoln Diggs (d. 1923)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Diggs_James_Robert_Lincoln, accessed [today's date]).

Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.

facebook twitter youtube instagram linkedin