Diggs-Taylor, Anna 1932–

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Anna Diggs-Taylor 1932

Federal judge

Enjoyed the Challenges of Law

Freedom Summer Lawyer

Expert in Labor Law

Appointed by President Carter

A Voice for Civil Rights


When President Jimmy Carter appointed Anna Diggs-Taylor to the Federal Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1979, she became the first African American woman in Michigan to be awarded such a judgeship. Almost two decades later, this Yale alumnus and civil rights activist achieved yet another milestone when she became chief judge for the District in January of 1997. This event marked the first time in American judicial history that an African American chief judge succeeded another on a federal court.

Enjoyed the Challenges of Law

Taylor was born Anna Katherine Johnston in 1932 in Washington, D.C. Both of Taylors parents were educators and her father, who eventually became treasurer of Howard University, presided over a household that fostered enthusiasm for politics and civil rights issues on a daily basis. After excelling in the District of Columbia public schools, her parents believed she needed a greater challenge and enrolled her in a private high school in Massachusetts. Taylor would later recall that although she missed her family terribly, the school provided an excellent curriculum and an intellectually stimulating environment.

After graduating from the Northfield School for Girls in 1950, Taylor enrolled at Barnard College in New York City. She received her undergraduate degree in economics in 1954, and was accepted at Yale University Law School. Taylor quickly discovered that she enjoyed the rigorous academics of law school and excelled academically. When she graduated with her L.L.B. from Yale in 1957, however, she was unable to secure any job offers from private law firms because of their prejudices against women and minorities. Fortunately she was hired by J. Ernest Wilkins, the first African American to serve in a subcabinet posthe was assistant Secretary for Laboras a solicitor in the Department of Labor, and began her long career in public service.

Freedom Summer Lawyer

During her three years as a Washington attorney, Taylor met Charles Diggs Jr., at the time a Democrat representing Detroit in the U.S. House of Representatives. They wed in 1960, and she moved with him to Detroit. She served one year as assistant county prosecutor in the Wayne County prosecutors office, but she also began a family and became active in the civil rights movement. Taylor spent the summer of 1964 in Mississippi working for the National Lawyers Guild, an activity that landed her on the cover of Jet magazine. She and Claudia Shropshire (later Judge Claudia Morcom) were the only two African American women working for the Guild during what was called Freedom Summer. The Guild and other organizations had arranged a massive civil rights agenda of legal challenges and demonstration

At a Glance

Born December 9, 1932, in Washington, D.C. daughter of V. D.; and Hazel B. Johnston; married Charles C. Diggs Jr., 1960 (divorced, 1971); married S. Martin Taylor, 1976; children: Douglass Johnston, Carla Cecilia. Education: Barnard College, B.A., 1954; Yale University, L.L.B., 1957. Religion: Episcopalian.

Career: Attorney and judge. United States Department of Labor, Solicitors Office, Washington, D.C., assistant solicitor, 195760; Wayne County, MI, assistant county prosecutor, 196162; Assistant U.S. attorney for Eastern District of Michigan, 1966; Office of Charles C. Diggs, Detroit, Mi, manager of Detroit office and legislative assistant; Zwerdling, Maurer, Diggs & Papp, partner, 197075; City of Detroit, assistant corporation counsel, 197579; appointed judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by President Jimmy Carter, 1979, became chief judge, 1997. Wayne State University Law School, adjunct professor, 1976.

Member: Federal Bar Association; State Bar of Michigan; Wolverine Bar Association; Women Lawyers Association; Women Judges Association; State Bar Committee on the United States Courts; Womens National Democratic Club; Yale Law Alumni Association, (vice-president); board member, Sinai Hospital (Detroit), Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Michigan Cancer Foundation.

Addresses: Office Chief Judge, United States District Court, Eastern District (Michigan), 740 Federal Courthouse, Detroit, MI 48226.

in the South to win equal rights for African Americans in states like Mississippi.

Taylor worked that summer with Detroit lawyer George Crockett Jr., who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives. At one point, Taylor and Crockett, along with her brotherthen a law student at Harvardwent to ask questions at the Neshoba County sheriffs office about the mysterious disappearance of three white activists. They were met with hostility in the sheriffs office, and an agitated crowd of whites gathered around their car. The missing men were later found murdered.

Expert in Labor Law

Taylor returned to Detroit and became assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1966. Following the birth of her daughter Carla in 1967, she spent the next few years working as a legislative assistant to her husband and managing his Detroit office until they divorced in the early 1970s. Taylor soon became active in politics. She was involved in the mayoral campaign of Coleman A. Young, who became Detroits first African American mayor in 1973, and served as special counsel to the city of Detroit on significant labor cases. Upon taking office, Young instituted new hiring and promotion policies among the citys police, fire, and civil service ranks, which were designed to better reflect Detroits growing African American majority. Many of the policies were met with legal challenges and Taylor defended the new policies, often successfully.

Eventually, Taylor left private practice and became assistant corporation counsel for the city of Detroit in 1975. She argued one case that forced the integration of two private yacht clubs located on Belle Isle, a city-owned island park in the Detroit River. In another instance, Taylor represented the city when police officers opposing a new affirmative-action promotion program filed suit. She argued on behalf of the program, but lost the case. When an appeal was filed Taylor persuaded her boss, Roger Craig, to let NAACP lawyers handle it. That case was a chance for her to cut her own mark, Craig told Robert E. Roach of the Detroit News, and she was fully entitled to litigate it. But she was obviously more interested in results than her own chance for glory, and I think that showed a lot of class.

Appointed by President Carter

Taylor became active in national Democratic Party politics, and worked on Jimmy Carters successful campaign for the White House in 1976. Three years later, Carter appointed her to the federal judges bench in Detroit, which handles cases in the eastern half of Michigans lower peninsula. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Taylors appointment in October of 1979, and she was sworn in on November 15, 1979. She became the first African American female to sit on a Michigan federal court, and recipient of the only lifetime appointment in government service. Federal judges usually handle politically-charged, high-profile cases, and it is believed that a permanent appointment will remove them from any electoral or partisan politics and increase their ability to be impartial. Taylor has decided suits involving billion-dollar corporate takeover maneuvers, bank officer embezzlement charges, and a series of challenges by the American Civil Liberties Union involving the constitutionality of religiously-themed nativity scenes on city property. She also delivered a harsh sentence to one of two unemployed autoworkers convicted in the beating death of a Chinese American during the early 1980s. However, her sentence was overturned a higher court.

A Voice for Civil Rights

Taylor is widely respected by her colleagues as a professional jurist with a scholarly legal mind. She has used her position to remind others that the battle for civil rights is not yet won. At a college commencement address in 1983, Taylor spoke about the continued need for equal opportunities for all Americans. According to the Michigan Chronicle, she told her audience that Americas minorities have become the perpetual losers of our political process, as well as scapegoats by which majorities are manipulated and diverted in the basic struggles of American political and economic life.

In 1984, Taylor criticized the chief judge on the Federal Court in Eastern Michigan, John Feikens, for controversial statements he made concerning African Americans. Feikens had remarked to the Detroit Free Press that African Americans will not understand how to run government. Some will not understand leadership. Taylor wrote Feikens a letter that was later released to the press. She chastised him for his insensitivity and called his remarks, an extraordinary insult to all black professionals and/or administrators, and an act that destroys, for blacks, the hope that they will obtain an impartial hearing in any litigation which may come before you, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Taylor again made history in 1997 when she became chief judge of the Eastern District. It was the first time the baton had been passed from one African American chief judge to another on the federal court level. Despite this accomplishment, however, 1998 statistics showed that African Americans were still underrepresented in this important branch of the judiciary. According to an Alliance for Justice study, less than ten percent of federal judges were African American. As Taylor told David Shepardson of the Detroit News, I think for some of my white colleagues, the federal court is still sort of a social club and black judges and female judges have too often been isolated. She also remarked that, black judges have an important roleespecially in staying close to their communities.

As one of Detroits most prominent citizens, Taylor is very active in numerous charitable and civic organizations. Remarried in 1976 to S. Martin Taylor, a utility-company executive, she enjoys gardening and gourmet cooking. Taylors son, Douglas Diggs, is also active in state and local Democratic politics.



Hyne, Darlene Clark, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Carlson Publishing, 1993.

Smith, Jessie Carney, Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.


Detroit Free Press, March 26, 1960; May 12, 1970; August 29, 1984, p. 1A; January 26, 1986, p. 3L; February 12, 1989, p. 1B.

Detroit News, October 29, 1970; October 30, 1979; November 7, 1979; September 23, 1998, p. 1C.

Michigan Chronicle, May 7, 1983; February 19, 1997.

Carol Brennan