It was just assumed that Charles C. Diggs Jr. had money.
He was the only child of a successful funeral home director whose reputation for self-reliance and generosity was legend in the poor black communities of inner Detroit. The young Diggs went to college, became a licensed mortician, attended law school, entered the state house of representatives and in 1954 was elected Michigan's first black congressman. He lived in style, appeared to make demands on no one and seemed to be without needs.
But, within the privacy of courtrooms here and in Detroit, Diggs was pursued by creditors for close to 20 years. He has long been beset by unpaid bills, a proud and fiercely private man living up to image he felt he had to sustain.
Those who know Diggs say his financial troubles stemmed from his family obligations. Diggs was married three times, divorced twice, fathered six children, faced alimony payments and private school tuition bills, and supported his widowed mother. The family funeral home business, once nurtured by his father, declined with the changing neighborhoods of Detroit and finally crumbled from neglect as Diggs was increasingly tied to Washington.
A man of taste but not extravagance, a movie buff who enjoys an occassional concert and, some say, the racetrack, Diggs has lived in the manner to which he is accustomed, even as his financial troubles worsened.
He borrowed money from loan companies and banks and ran up bills and left them unpaid, court records show. He bought an 1880 Capitol Hill row house in 1972 for $70,000. It is decorated with "elegant simplicity," according to an associate. Much of its furnishings come from a Washington department store, which is suing the congressman for $28,000 worth of goods and services on an overdue account dating back to 1973, according to sources and court records.
As the congressman maintained the image of the well-to-do man, the "obligations kept building up," and one close associate.
In the end, this associate said, "the bottom didn't fall out . . . It was chipped away . . ."
The image of financial security and political power conveyed by Charles C. Diggs Jr. was taken on from his father, who in 1921 left Mississippi and came to Detroit, where he opened a funeral home and declared himself a Democrat amidst a Michigan tradition of black Republicans.
The elder Diggs was a "down to earth grass roots type person," said Ofield Dukes, Washington public relations commitant and alongtime family friend. [Dukes was described in Diggs' indictment as a participant in the payroll scheme but Dukes himself was nor indicted.] The elder Diggs was a practical, parsimonious man, Dukes said, who "counted every nickel, dime and dollar." But "whenever there was a financial need in the community, they called on Mr. Diggs," Dukes said. As the stories go, he gave them coal to heat their homes and buries their dead for free. And he would hire a secretary, get into his car and "go out into the ghetto and get people to register to vote," Dukes said.
"His voice was heard . . . over the years urging exhorting blacks to use the power of the ballot," said Horace Sheffield, a Detroit labor leader. And to a great degree, Sheffield said, the elder Diggs "helped shape the politics" to Detroit.
The business of undertaking, was a natural meeting ground for the elder Mr. Diggs andnew found black-voters. He became the first black to serve in the Michigan State Senate.
The elder Diggs was later of graft reportedly in connection with his dealings with lobbyists and after his people from prison in the 1950's, the voters returned him to the Michigan legislature. Because of the conviction, however, the legislature refused to allow his seat. So, the voters elected his son to take his place and Charles Diggs Jr., by then a licensed mortician then studying law, made a reluctant entrance into politics.
His father's misfortune "was sobering experience," Diggs told an interviewer in 1973 as he was about to assume the chairmanship of the House District Committee.
"I learned something about serving in a position of public trust," he said.
Diggs served in the state legislature from 1951 until 1954, when he was elected to the 84th Congress, from Michigan's 13th District in the heart of downtown Detroit.
He developed into a careful, practical politician, "a very shrewd operator," one source said, with "considerable political skills."