The Norwood Historical Society would like to introduce you to Irma Ursula (Thompson) Diggs, who came to Norwood shortly after she married Henry William Diggs in 1937, and made Norwood her home until she died in 1990.
Irma Ursula Thompson was born January 8, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio, to Rev. Elmer Edwin Thompson and Lillian B. Williams, the third of four children. Soon after her birth, Rev. Thompson was called to a congregation in Medford, (MA), and it was in Medford where Irma grew up. She attended the Medford public schools, graduating from Medford High School in 1932. She went on to attend Jackson College, the women’s college of Tufts College (now University), earning her BA. Later she earned her Master’s Degree equivalent in Education while teaching in Sharon. While in college she was also an outstanding athlete, playing both basketball and field hockey – eventually being honored by Tufts when they inducted her into the Tufts University Jumbo Club for outstanding athletes. In 1937, she married Henry William Diggs. (Henry W. Diggs was born in 1906, to Charles T Diggs and Sarah Grandison. Henry graduated from Norwood High School in 1924, then attended Wentworth Institute of Technology and went on to be a printer at the Norwood Press, as well as serve as a member of Norwood’s School Committee and Town Meeting for many years.) Irma and Henry married at Tufts’ Goddard Chapel in a service conducted by her father. They settled in Norwood and became the parents of two daughters – Judith (Diggs) Potter and Jacqueline Diggs.
Although Irma’s parents were born after the Civil War ended, her grandparents were not. Census records cannot be found on this family before the war, indicating her grandparents were most likely enslaved, which makes her Thompson side all the more interesting. Her paternal grandfather, Phillip Thompson, was born in Kentucky in 1847, who served for the Union in the US Colored Troop, 6th Cavalry during the Civil War; he is buried in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Her grandmother, Emma Hennessey, was born in Ireland and immigrated to Ohio, where they met and married; Emma is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery, Mattapan underneath her daughter, Lilian Belle Williams. Their son Elmer, Irma’s father, was the first Black man to graduate from Springfield College (Massachusetts), in 1904. He earned a theological degree and went on to become a minister in Medford (MA). Her maternal grandparents were Joseph Williams and Edmonia Jones. Not much is known about Joseph Williams; Edmonia Jones was born in Bedford County, Virginia, and, according to family lore, may well have been an unacknowledged part of the Aster family.
In the late 1860’s, the Diggs family was living in Frederick, Maryland, in a large African American community. The neighborhood was home to free people of color, according to the 1850 and 1860 censuses. Richard Diggs, Henry’s grandfather, was freed after the Civil War, and became a leader in his community. Richard (born December, 1838), a carpenter, married Sarah Elizabeth Lyles in 1862; she was born in April, 1843 in Frederick, Maryland, a free woman of color, to a minister’s family. They had at least eleven children. (Both Richard and Sarah Elizabeth are now buried in Highland Cemetery, Norwood.) The Lyles family had been free for several generations. In 1884, the Richard H. Diggs family was the first black family to move to Norwood. In 1892, they purchased a parcel of land at 368 Washington Street from Tyler Thayer and Richard used his knowledge of carpentry to construct a house that stands to this day. Richard was born into slavery, came to Norwood, and in less than 30 years of freedom was able to buy land and build a house. Most of his grandchildren attended college, several of his grandsons served in the military, and many were civic-minded.
Irma was a kindergarten teacher for over thirty years in both the Norwood and Sharon school systems. She left Norwood in 1955 when they would not give her tenure because she was married, but Sharon would. She was an active member in both the Sharon Teachers Association and the National Educators Association (NEA). Her interest in working with children extended not only to her teaching career, but as a Girl Scout troop leader in Norwood, as well as having served on the Massachusetts Girl Scout Council. She even earned the name “Mrs. Girl Scout.” She attended the United Church of Norwood, where she taught Sunday School. In 1968, Irma and her husband both tried to encourage the Norwood School Committee to become one of the first towns to participate in the new METCO (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity) program, a voluntary school desegregation program. They felt it was an amazing opportunity not just for the children who would travel to Norwood from Boston, but would also be an amazing opportunity for Norwood students as well.
Although Irma’s professional interest was working with children, she did have other interests as well. At Tufts she joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (1935); when Irma’s daughter, Judith, joined Delta Sigma Theta at Lesley College in 1961, her mother pinned her. She was the National President of the Northeasterners, a charitable social organization. With her husband, Irma was a member of the Neponset Valley Tufts Club, serving as their Secretary. The Diggs family spent summers at Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard; this led Irma to become a member of the Dukes County Historical Society. Irma died at age 75 on July 20th, 1990 of the effects of diabetes in Norwood Hospital.
Irma’s teaching legacy was taken up by both daughters: Judith taught early childhood for almost 50 years and Jacqueline taught physical education and became a high school administrator, both in public schools.
It appears Irma was not just satisfied with letting life pass by. It would have been easy for her to just settle into her home on Washington Street and quietly raise her family, but Irma, like so many others in her family, actively participated in Norwood, her community, leaving it all the better.
We gratefully thank Judith Diggs Potter, Irma’s daughter, for her assistance with this profile.