Elder Watson Diggs was an educator by training. In 1911, he was among the principal founders of Kappa Alpha Psi, an organization for which he served as Grand Polemarch for the first six years of its existence. In 1925, he received a Laurel Wreath Award, which is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a member of the fraternity.
Diggs was born on December 23, 1883, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, an agricultural town in the western part of the state. He was the eldest son of Henry and Cornelia Diggs; With his brother, Ellis, and sister, Essie, Diggs was raised in nearby Madisonville, Kentucky.
Diggs attended Indiana State Normal School in Terre Haute, Indiana (now Indiana State University), graduating in 1908. The following year, he enrolled at Howard University and pursued graduate studies in education. It was here that, in 1910, he met Byron Kenneth Armstrong. During the spring of 1910, Armstrong had been visited by his cousin, Irven Armstrong, who was a student at Indiana University and promoted its virtues.
Transfer to Indiana
Diggs' decision to transfer from Howard to Indiana was likely the culmination of personal, as well as professional, pursuits. His high school sweetheart and future wife, Clara Bell Smith, was a teacher in Rising Sun, Indiana, which was less than 50 miles from Bloomington, Indiana. The university likely offered better prospects for employment in Indiana if he graduated from a school in state. Three years prior to his arrival, the Indiana state legislature had authorized its board of education to establish a normal (primary) school system throughout the state. In 1908, a year later, Indiana University established its school of education, making Diggs amongst its earliest enrollees.
In the fall of 1910, Diggs and Armstrong left Howard University to attend Indiana University. Diggs enrolled in the university's newly established school of education. In 1916 when he graduated, became the graduate school's first African American to earn a master of arts degree. In 1943, he returned to Howard University and earned his second masters degree in education in 1944.
As was the case for many African Americans at Indiana University, Diggs held many jobs. During the school year, he worked as a server on campus, most notably in the Beta Theta Pi house, alongside Paul W. Caine, with whom he would later found Kappa Alpha Psi. During the summers, he worked as a waiter in hotels in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Cape May, New Jersey.
Digg's field of study, however, was education; in 1913 and 1914, he withdrew from university to care for an ailing wife while working as a teacher at a high school in Vinciennes, Indiana. After earning a graduate degree, he returned to that school, serving as its principal.
In 1917, Diggs resigned in order to enter the United States' first Officer's Training Camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. One of the first members of Kappa Alpha Psi to join the armed forces, he served with the 368th Infantry. The unit is credited with participating in the Battle of Argonne Forest in France during the fall of 1918. The Allied victory along the western front effectively brought the war to a close. After the war, Diggs became a captain in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
In 1921, Diggs returned to the State of Indiana, and sought work as a teacher at Indianapolis Public School #42. He served as a teacher and principal for 26 years until his death.
Digg's contributions to Kappa Alpha Psi are as deep as they are wide. From the onset, he envisioned an fraternity that stood toe-to-toe with its mainstream counterparts. He developed initiatives, processes, and concepts that underpin the fraternity's foundation to this day.
- Established Alpha Omega as an organizing committee to prepare for founding a fraternity.
- Developed the fraternity's motto: Achievement, in every field of human endeavor.
- Hosted the first and third Grand Chapter meetings
- Worked with Armstrong to develop the fraternity's ritual.
- Worked with Armstrong and Lee to develop the fraternity's coat of arms.
- Wrote the fraternity's first constitution, which, with revisions, was adopted in 1920.
- Chartered Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta. Established criteria for chapter expansion.
- Authored the lyrics to The Kappa Alpha Nu Hymn.
- Selected the letter "Ψ" to the replace "N" and give the fraternity an authentically Greek identity.
- Worked with J. Ernest Wilkins and W. Ellis Stewart in 1926 to revise the constitution.
- Appointed Grand Historian in 1938, where he served for one year.
- Re-elected Grand Polemarch at the Fifth Grand Chapter in December 1915.
- Re-elected Grand Polemarch at the Fourth Grand Chapter in December 1914.
- Re-elected Grand Polemarch at the Third Grand Chapter in December 1913.
- Elected Grand Polemarch at the First Grand Chapter in May 1911.
- Served as Polemarch of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity in January 1911. The office was renamed Grand Polemarch, after John M. Lee was elected Polemarch of the Alpha chapter.
Elder Watson Diggs was married three times. In the summer of 1912, he married his childhood sweetheart, Clara Bell Smith, a public school teacher in Rising Sun, Indiana. At the time, the school frowned upon married women teaching; as a result, the marriage was kept a secret. Within the next year, Smith fell ill, resulting in her death in March 1913.
Diggs second wife was Elizabeth Byrd, whom he married in the summer of 1916, after earning his graduate degree. Little is known about the length of this marriage but it is believed to have produced no children.
Diggs married a third time, exchanging vows with Lydia Diggs, with whom he stayed married until his death. The third Mrs. Diggs died less than thirty days later.
- Diggs had a first cousin, Lucy Diggs Slowe, who was two years his junior. During her senior year at Howard University in 1908, she founded Alpha Kappa Alpha with eight other women. Diggs Slowe served as the sorority's first Basileus (president).
- On October 15, 1917, Diggs was among the 639 college-educated men enrolled in the Negro Officer's Training Camp in Des Moines, Iowa, to receive their commissions. He was a first lieutenant. Among this group were other black leaders including Frank Coleman and Edgar Love, who co-founded the Omega Psi Phi in 1911, and cadet lawyers Samuel Joe Brown, Charles Howard, and James Morris, who co-founded the National Bar Association in 1925.
- Diggs was instrumental in having the Indiana Constitution amended to permit Negro enlistment in the Indiana National Guar .
Diggs died on the morning of November 8, 1947, just 45 days short of his 64th birthday. The cause of the death was unknown. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.
- After his death, the fraternity established the Elder Watson Diggs Award, the second highest award bestowed upon a member of the fraternity. It is awarded at each Grand Chapter.
- Also after his death, Public School 42 in the Indianapolis Public School System, where Diggs taught and served as principal, was renamed the Elder Watson Diggs School.
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