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Elder Watson Diggs: ‘The Dreamer’

Elder Watson Diggs, often called “the Dreamer,” blazed trails as the first Black graduate of the IU School of Education and a co-founder of Kappa Alpha Psi, the first Black fraternity at IU.

Soon after he arrives at IU, in 1910, Elder Watson Diggs, BA 1916, begins organizing a fraternity for Black students. At a time when Black students are denied much of what was offered to white students—including residence in student dormitories, the use of entertainment and recreational facilities, and participation in contact sports—he envisions a fraternity that would help give Black men support and sanctuary.

Others had tried and failed, but Diggs—and the nine other Black students who had joined him—were determined. Along the way, Diggs assisted in designing the fraternity’s coat of arms, drafted the fraternity’s constitution, took a course in Greek heraldry and mythology to ensure the fraternity was rooted in authenticity, and pawned his watch to help pay the fraternity’s incorporation fee.

In January 1911, their efforts came to fruition. Kappa Alpha Nu (which later became Kappa Alpha Psi) was a reality.

“A Kappa man must be good, upright, moral, and manly,” Diggs, also known to members as “the Dreamer,” once said when describing the men of his fraternity.

A year later, Diggs married his childhood sweetheart but lost her to sickness shortly after. Despite his grief, he persisted in his studies and, in 1916, became the first Black graduate of the IU School of Education.

He immediately began teaching but resigned in 1917 to join the first U.S. Negroes Officers Training Camp in Fort Des Moines, Iowa. After World War I, Diggs returned to teaching and school administration and eventually earned a master’s degree from Howard University in 1944.

After Diggs’s death in 1947, Indianapolis Public School #42, where he served as a teacher and principal for 26 years, was renamed the Elder W. Diggs IPS School #42 in his honor.

Today, the IU School of Education awards the Kappa Alpha Psi endowed Elder Watson Diggs Scholarship to education majors who have demonstrated a commitment to diversity.

IU Provost Rahul Shrivastav, PhD’01, left, and Kappa Alpha Psi Grand Polemarch Jimmy McMikle, BA’92, right, unveil the portrait of Elder Watson Diggs. “I viewed founder Diggs as an idol and felt a tremendous responsibility to carry on his legacy by personally achieving,” McMikle says. “However, it was through my subsequent years that I began to understand the boldness and courage necessary to champion an African American cause in Indiana during the early 1900s (and to do it as an undergraduate student).” Photo courtesy of Indiana University.

A portrait of Diggs, unveiled in September 2023, now hangs in the atrium of the W.W. Wright Education Building. It was painted by Shawn Michael Warren, who is also the artist behind Oprah Winfrey’s Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery painting.

Since its founding, Kappa Alpha Psi has grown from 10 men at IU Bloomington to a membership of more than 200,000, with a footprint of close to 700 chapters in more than 400 communities across the continental United States and 13 overseas territories.

“The story of Elder Watson Diggs is synonymous with the power of a dream,” Kappa Alpha Psi Grand Polemarch Jimmy McMikle, BA’92, says. “He symbolizes how an ordinary person with a vision, the courage to pursue a dream in the face of overwhelming odds, and a relentless determination to fight for a cause bigger than yourself can create and leave a lasting legacy of global significance.”

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Written By

Emily Miles

Emily Miles, BAJ'19, is the campus engagement generalist in the IU Bloomington Office of the Provost.

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