Irma Ursela (Thompson) Diggs – A Wonderful Woman of Norwood
The Norwood Historical Society would like to introduce you to Irma Ursela (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 Ursela Thompson was born January 8, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio, to Rev. Elmer Edwin Thompson and Lillian B. Williams. 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 Tufts University earning her BA and her Master’s Degree in Education, and 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 at Tufts’ Goddard Chapel, they settled in Norwood, and became the parents of two daughters, Judith (Diggs) Potter and Jacquelyn Diggs. Henry W. Diggs was born in 1906, to Charles T. Diggs and Sarah Grandison. Henry graduated from 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 for many years.
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 a mulatto man born in Kentucky in 1847, who served for the Union in the US Colored Troop, 6th Cavalry during the Civil War. Her grandmother, Emma Hennessey, was an Irish woman born in Ohio. Philip and Emma married in Ohio when mixed marriages were outlawed. Their son Elmer, Irma’s father, attended college, at a time when it was rare for a person of color to do so. He earned a theological degree and went on to become a minister in Medford (MA). Regarding her maternal grandparents, Joseph Williams and Edmonia Jones, not much is known, which leads us to believe they were born into slavery and freed after the war.
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; he was a leader in his community. Richard was a carpenter, married to Sarah Elizabeth Lyles, a free woman of color. Elizabeth was born in 1843 in Frederick, Maryland, to a minister. 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 on Washington St., from Tyler Thayer and built a house. 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 30 years in both the Norwood and Sharon school systems. She was an active member in both the Sharon Teachers Association and the National Teachers Association. 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 local Massachusetts Girl Scout Council. She even earned the name “Mrs. Girl Scout.” She attended the First 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 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. She was the national president of the Northeasterners, which was charitable social organization. She was the secretary for the Neponset Valley Tufts Club, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and a member of the Dukes County Historical Society on Martha’s Vineyard. Oak Bluffs was place where the Diggs family spent their summers.
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 St. 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. In 1990, Irma passed at the age of 75 and is interred in Highland Cemetery.