Celebrating Elder Watson Diggs

Elder Watson Diggs (bottom row, center) at a house party on the IU Campus in May 1911.

Elder Watson Diggs (1883-1947) was the first African American to graduate from the Indiana University School of Education. When he arrived on the Indiana University Bloomington campus in 1910 he was one of few African American students enrolled. At the time Black students were not allowed to live on campus and could not participate in activities, such as using recreational and entertainment facilities, like white students. Unhappy with the way African American students were treated, Diggs set out to improve the academic and cultural opportunities for them on the campus.

Diggs wanted to establish a fraternity on the campus of IU to give African American students support and sanctuary based on high moral ideals and the purpose of achievement. He felt that an organization that supported Black men academically and facilitated community could change perceptions and enable future generations to attend the university.

On January 5, 1911, Diggs and nine other men formed Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. at Indiana University-Bloomington. Their goal was to raise the sights of black students and to stimulate their accomplishments to a higher level. He served as a Grand Polemarch (president) from 1911-1917 and traveled around the country to create and support newly formed chapters. Diggs was awarded the fraternity’s first Laurel Wreath Award—the highest honor awarded—in 1924.

After graduating, Diggs moved to Indianapolis where he began teaching and was quickly promoted to Principal. With the onset of World War I, he resigned to enter the nations’ first Negro Officer’s Training camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and was commissioned a lieutenant. He served with the 368th Infantry in Europe and fought across France. For the first time, a Black regiment under the command of Black officers led the attack in a major battle. He later served as a captain in the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC). In 1936 Diggs was instrumental in having the Indiana Constitution amended to permit African American enlistment in the Indiana National Guard.

After the war he returned to his job as Principal of Indianapolis Public School #42, which was named in his honor after his death. Elder Watson Diggs is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.