African American couple has felt Columbia change into a welcoming community


Longtime St. Thomas More Newman Center parishioners Larry and Marjorie Diggs know what it feels like to be welcomed.

And not to be.

“I’ve been Catholic all my life, through all my childhood and adulthood,” said Mrs. Diggs, age 91. “And when I first came to Columbia, it was ... kind of shocking.”

She and Mr. Diggs went to Mass at all three Catholic churches and had the same experience.

“None of the people would hold my hand during the Lord’s Prayer or at other times during the Mass,” said Mrs. Diggs.

After discussing their shared experience of feeling like outsiders, they decided to try worshipping at other churches in the city.

Both lifelong Catholics visited congregations where they did feel welcome, “but it just wasn’t the same,” said Mrs. Diggs.

One Sunday, they were aboard a cruise ship when the announcements came for the various religious services.

“We haven’t been to Catholic church for so long,” Mrs. Diggs told her husband. “None of these people know us. Why don’t we go to Mass here?”

Mr. Diggs agreed, and they made their way to the appropriate deck.

“As soon as I walked through the door, it was as if I could hear the Lord Himself saying, ‘Welcome home, Marjorie!’” she recalled.

That day, they resolved to return to Mass and the Sacraments when they got back to Columbia, whether they felt welcome or not.

“We’re not going for other people,” Mrs. Diggs remembers thinking. “We’re going for God and we’re going for us.”

She decided to call ahead.

“I called the parish office at Our Lady of Lourdes, and a nun answered the phone,” she recalled. “I told her what we had been through in the past.”

The sister said the timing must have been a God thing, because she usually would have been away at lunch at that time.

She told Mrs. Diggs: “I’m in the office now, and I want you to come over here and talk to me, because I am so sorry that we as Catholics have let you down so badly.”

The sister and a friend who was active at St. Thomas More Newman Center sat down for a visit with Mr. and Mrs. Diggs.

“They talked us into coming back to the Church, and things were so much better after that,” said Mrs. Diggs.

The couple got involved in parish activities, serving as greeters at Mass and as parish council representatives.

“It was more than just coming to Mass for them,” fellow St. Thomas More Newman Center parishioner Dr. Avila Nilon noted. “They wanted to be an active part of the community.”

That’s something the Diggses recommend to anyone who joins a parish.

Peace and war

Mrs. Diggs was born in Peoria, Illinois, but spent most of her growing-up in Chicago.

“In a large city like that, there’s a lot segregation in the fact,” she noted. “It’s not something they make you do, it’s just something you do.”

With over 2 million people spread out over 234 square miles, the Chicago she remembers there being many mostly Black neighborhoods with schools and churches.

“You didn’t care that they were mostly Black or mostly white,” she recalled. “You just went to the one you went to, and that’s what you did.”

Mr. Diggs grew up on a farm in Mississippi and wound up serving in the South Pacific in an elite group known as the Montford Point Marines during World War II.

He told military historian and writer Jeremy P. Ämick in 2019 about undergoing grueling training by drill sergeants who wanted him and his fellow African American inductees to give up on being Marines.

“That only made us more determined to succeed,” he stated.

His unit fought valiantly in the Battle of Peleliu in 1944, helping to bring victory and then keep the island secure through the end of the war.

Mr. Diggs and 400 of his fellow Montford Point Marines were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C., in 2012.

It was a 180-degree turn from how he was received in basic training 70 years previously.

“They didn’t want us in the Marine Corps,” he told Mr. Ämick. “They weren’t ready for us and they did their best to make sure that we didn’t succeed. We just performed the best that we could and were determined to prove them wrong.”

In 2015, Mr. Diggs was invited to travel to Washington to light one of the candles for the 240th anniversary of the Marine Corps.

He maintains a display of his World War II and Marine regalia, calling it “Larry’s Wall.”

Promoting a legacy

Mr. and Mrs. Diggs met while working for the U.S. Postal Service in Chicago.

“We came to know each other well and started going out,” Mrs. Diggs recalled. “And finally ended up getting married.”

They bought a home on 40 acres in rural Boone County after retiring in 1980 and finished raising their family there.

“My husband knew all about farming, but I didn’t know anything about it,” said Mrs. Diggs. “But I learned and we just had a really nice time with it.”

The couple helped stir up fellow St. Thomas More Newman Center parishioner Dr. Nilon’s interest in the life and ministry of Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton.

Born into a family of enslaved people in northeastern Missouri a few years before the Civil War, Fr. Tolton became the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States in 1886.

He was serving as pastor of a mostly Black and poor parish in Chicago when he died of heat stroke in 1897. He is under formal consideration for being declared a saint.

Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, opened in 2011, is named in his honor.

“I didn’t know about Fr. Tolton until they started getting ready to build the school,” Dr. Nilon pointed out.

The Diggses encouraged Dr. Nilon and fellow parishioner Michele Sisson-White to establish the Fr. Tolton Legacy Society at the Newman Center and organize an annual Mass and celebration each April.

The event helps generate awareness and devotion to Fr. Tolton. Proceeds help provide scholarships for students at the high school.

The society honored Mr. and Mrs. Diggs during its first luncheon in 2016.


“Life goes on”

The Diggses recently sold their house and farm after 40 years and moved to a senior living community in Columbia.

“We really like living here,” said Mrs. Diggs. “We’re the only black couple here, but everybody is really nice.”

Their oldest son died in January of this year. Their oldest daughter died in October.

“You never want to outlive your kids,” said Mrs. Diggs. “It just doesn’t seem right. But that’s what happened.”

The Diggses have grandchildren and great-grandchildren living all over the country. The COVID pandemic has kept the relatives apart, but their daughter’s funeral in Chicago brought them together.

Their youngest son, David, wants them to move out west to be closer to him and his family.

“But I think maybe we’ll stay here,” said Mrs. Diggs.

The couple don’t think much about the cold shoulder they both felt decades ago unless they’re asked about it.

They are convinced that the Catholic parishes in Columbia have become much more Catholic in their capacity to welcome and draw together people together from different backgrounds.

That sense of solidarity also permeates the senior citizen community where they live, said Mrs. Diggs.

“We all have our meals together and exercise classes together and talks together, and everybody hugs and kisses, and life goes on,” she stated.

Well aware of the ongoing struggles for justice and equality in this country, she prays for the love of Christ to influence how people stand together and treat each other.

“I just want people to love one another, regardless of race or religious affiliation, and appreciate what we have in this world, and just take care of each other,” she said.

Some of this information came from an article by Jeremy P. Ämick, “Veteran was among first African Americans in-ducted in WWII Marine Corps,” in the Dec. 1, 2019, edition of the Jefferson City News-Tribune, and is used here with permission.