Benard Diggs still remembers The Ville of his childhood. For decades, the north St. Louis neighborhood was the heart of Black life in the city.
The Ville produced famous cultural luminaries including Arthur Ashe, Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry and Dick Gregory. It was also home to historic institutions such as the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, the first teaching hospital to serve the city’s Black residents, and Sumner High School, the first high school west of the Mississippi River to educate Black students.
Diggs remembers it as a close-knit community where neighbors all knew each other and helped those in need. Things began to change in the latter half of the 20th century, though.
“I was amazed at how this area that was once the center of Black culture was now an area of desolate houses,” he said. “I just couldn’t understand what happened.”
Diggs endeavored to answer that question in his PhD dissertation, “The Aftermath of the First Children of Brown: Stories of Racial Disparities in Housing and Education in St. Louis 1950-1970.” He successfully defended his dissertation and graduated from the University of Missouri–St. Louis in December with a PhD from the College of Education.
The achievement comes after a long, celebrated career at UMSL. Diggs was a fixture at the university for more than four decades, working his way up from the floor crew to the director of the Millennium Student Center. December’s commencement also marked the third time he graduated from the university, having previously earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Diggs was born in The Ville and spent his early childhood there. His mother moved the family to Hamilton Heights, another north St. Louis neighborhood, after the death of Diggs’ father, who had developed black lung disease working in the city’s foundries.
He grew up around medical professionals – his mother and sister were nurses – and he had hopes of becoming a physician. He enrolled in the biology program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to pursue that ambition.
However, the out-of-state fees began to mount, and Diggs needed to make some money to stay in school. His girlfriend’s father was working as a custodian at UMSL at the time, and he arranged for Diggs to join the university’s night-shift floor crew in 1973.
“They didn’t hire a lot of young people at that time,” Diggs recalled. “Most of the workers were all middle-aged people. So, bringing young people into the fold presented a different dynamic. There were about four of us to get hired at the same time. We were all called ‘Youngblood.’ They were pretty good mentors. I learned a lot from them.”
For example, how to handle the giant buffers used to maintain the floors and walkways in campus buildings.
“It was a huge buffer, and I was about 165 pounds then,” he said with a laugh. “That buffer threw me across the floor quite a bit, but I learned how to use it.”
Diggs continued to work on the floor crew and attend classes at SIUE. Working nights and commuting about 30 miles across the river took a toll, though. Diggs recalled sleeping through an organic chemistry test. He was able to make it up thanks to an understanding professor, but it spurred him to transfer to UMSL.
He continued to take classes for a while, but his interest in the pre-med path began to wane.
“I don’t think I had the dedication to really stick with it,” Diggs said. “Because I didn’t study the way I should have. When you’re dealing with chemistry and biochemistry, all those things, you got to be pretty dedicated to that. I stuck with it here up until a point.”
Eventually, Diggs took a break from school and started moving up the ladder at UMSL, becoming assistant supervisor and then head supervisor of the custodial department. That promotion motivated him to complete his bachelor’s degree in general studies in 1994. From there, he rose the ranks to become operations manager of University Center, now a part of the J.C. Penney Building and then director of the MSC, a position he held until his retirement.
During his time at UMSL, Diggs developed an interest in education. A colleague in the J.C. Penney Building encouraged him to apply to graduate school to explore that interest. Diggs took his advice and graduated with a master’s in adult and higher education in 2007.
“Higher education just was calling me,” he said. “You know, that’s just where I wanted to be. The ability to do adult ed and higher ed was there, and it worked out fine for me. I learned some stuff about higher ed that I had no idea about – the governance and how all of that went together.”
He assumed that would be the end of his education, but once again, someone urged him to keep going.
“I have a very good friend that had gotten his doctorate, and he challenged me,” Diggs said. “He said that there needed to be more Black scholars. I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was kind of through with schooling, but I went on and went in as a provisional student.”
In 2013, Diggs began his PhD dissertation on the unintended consequences of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled the doctrine of separate but equal unconstitutional. The study examined the experiences of residents of Hamilton Heights and The Ville who had attended St. Louis Public Schools between 1950 and 1970.
Diggs was himself a St. Louis Public Schools student in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and had attended the integrated John O’Fallon Technical High School, which is now known as Gateway STEM High School.
However, that wasn’t the case for many St. Louisans.
“Brown never was fully implemented,” Diggs explained. “It was supposed to give African American children equal rights to education, and there was supposed to be a mixing of the races. But in St. Louis, there was no way for Brown to be implemented because of the way the city structure was. How could integration proceed if everybody in your neighborhood was the same as you were?”
One of the key questions Diggs asked his interview subjects was, “Why did you leave?” It revealed a clue to the disinvestment and disrepair that befell the neighborhoods toward the end of the century.
In many cases, integration was stymied in K-12 schools due to segregated housing, but higher education opportunities did begin to expand. Many young residents left to further their education and simply never returned.
“They didn’t necessarily come back to the community,” Diggs said. “They had pretty decent jobs, and they thought that they could do better. They just didn’t come back. So, you were left with an aging population of parents and buildings needing repair. It just eventually deteriorated.”
Diggs’ doctoral studies were extended due to family illnesses, but he is grateful for his mother who encouraged him to finish his project before she passed. He also credits his advisor, the late Associate Professor Matthew Davis, and mentor, Assistant Adjunct Professor Claude Weathersby, for pushing him to complete his degree.
He intends to keep researching neighborhood decline with the hope of a forthcoming solution.
“People in these neighborhoods, and I’m talking about north of Delmar, are going to have to become more invested in the neighborhoods,” he said. “I did put in my conclusion and recommendations that we’re going to have to become more invested in law enforcement. There’s got to be some way that we take control of our neighborhoods once again.
“And then people are going to have to be involved in the city planning. You have to know what the city is doing, and you can’t just put people in these offices because you like them. You have to know what they stand for, and if they’re not standing for things that you think are important, then you don’t need to vote for them.”