Diggs, Irene (1906—)

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Diggs, Irene (1906—)

American anthropologist who was a pioneering black scholar in African Diaspora and Afro-Latin studies. Born Ellen Diggs on April 13, 1906, in Monmouth, Illinois; daughter of Henry Charles and Alice (Scott) Diggs; University of Minnesota, B.S., 1928; Atlanta University, M.A., 1933; doctorate from the University of Havana, 1945.

Born into a black working-class family in the small college town of Monmouth, Illinois, in the first decade of the 20th century, Irene Diggs realized from her earliest years that education could liberate not only individuals but an entire class of oppressed people. An excellent student in high school, Diggs transferred after one year from local Monmouth College to the University of Minnesota, earning a bachelor's degree there in 1928. Enrolling at Atlanta University for graduate work, she soon came to the attention of the eminent black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois. After receiving her master's degree in 1933 (the first to be granted in the field of anthropology by Atlanta University), she began to work full time as Du Bois' chief research assistant. The prolific and often overextended Du Bois increasingly depended on Irene Diggs to provide him with the source materials he needed for his many research projects. Among the projects she was involved with during the years working with Du Bois (1933–1943 and 1945–1947) were editing the Encyclopedia of the Negro (1945, 2nd edition, 1946), and serving as cofounder of the influential journal Phylon: A Review of Race and Culture.

Having first visited Cuba in 1942 and been deeply impressed by evidence of the continuing impact of African culture on that island, Diggs determined to carry out advanced research in Afro-Caribbean traditions leading to a doctoral degree. Awarded a Roosevelt Fellowship by the Institute of International Education, starting in 1943 she was enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Havana. As a student of the noted Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz, Diggs combined working through the published literature of the field with extensive travels through the island of Cuba collecting folklore, recording village music, photographing festivals and observing traditional Afro-Cuban dances and rituals. Diggs was awarded her doctorate by the University of Havana in 1945. After graduation, she spent a number of months in Montevideo, Uruguay, as an exchange scholar. Besides carrying out archival research, she also observed the little-known Afro-Uruguayan and Afro-Argentinean communities in Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

After a brief return to Atlanta to work again with Du Bois, Irene Diggs accepted a job offer in 1947 to join the faculty of Morgan State College (now University) in Baltimore, Maryland. Until her retirement from Morgan State in 1976, she carried a heavy teaching load, was an inspiring teacher, and continued her scholarly work under often trying circumstances. She published a significant number of important articles in scholarly journals and was also able over the decades to produce a number of well-received reference works and monographs. An underlying theme of many of Diggs' writings is the functional differences operating in race relations in the United States and in Latin America. Writing in 1971 in the Negro History Bulletin, she noted that in these two cultures there was a dramatic difference in how an individual human being was defined as being white or black, a fact that had an impact not only on the lives of individuals but on the culture as a whole.

The friends, colleagues and students of Irene Diggs were not only won over by her charm but by the breadth of her knowledge. An indefatigable researcher, her work took her around the world on several occasions, and she became an enthusiastic traveler. She concentrated on Latin America in the 1940s; starting in the 1950s, she visited Africa and also investigated lesser-known parts of Europe, including Cyprus, Iceland, and Finland (on which she became a respected authority). After retirement from her teaching duties, she explored the Middle and Far East and the Soviet Union in depth. She also maintained her ties with Africa, visiting many countries to expand her fund of knowledge as well as to visit old friends. A remarkable, multi-talented scholar, Irene Diggs surely deserves comparison with her great mentor W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1978, the Association of Black Anthropologists presented her with its Distinguished Scholar Award for her outstanding achievements in researching the struggles and achievements of peoples of African descent in the New World.


Diggs, Irene. "Attitudes toward Color in South America," in Negro History Bulletin. Vol 34, 1971, pp. 107–108.

——. Black Chronology: From 4000 B.C. to the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1983.

——. "Color in Colonial Spanish America," in Journal of Negro History. Vol. 38. October 1953, pp. 403–427.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia