Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery is located on the south side of Thirteen Mile Road between Ryan and Mound roads in Warren. To the casual passer-by, it appears to be an inconspicuous place, as poignant and peaceful as any other burial site. It is difficult to imagine that, at its inception, it was a point of contention and controversy.
The cemetery was incorporated in 1925 through the efforts of Charles C. Diggs Sr. He was an African American funeral director in the Detroit area and was deeply disturbed by the inequities African Americans faced, in life and unfortunately, also in death. Many cemeteries refused to allow blacks to be buried on their property, or if they did allow it, they charged more for the plots. Funeral service providers relegated family members and mourners of black decedents to inconvenient, less desirable dates and times to hold the services.
Diggs Sr. convinced other black business owners in the area to join with him and purchase a section of land to found a cemetery where blacks could be buried with dignity. Property options in Detroit were limited, but the founders were able to locate property on what is now Thirteen Mile Road in Warren. When the purpose of the development became apparent to white residents in the area, potential conflict loomed overhead, but the founders were undeterred, and on Oct. 30, 1926, the first official adult burial took place.
The founders elected Aaron Toodle as the first president of the Detroit Memorial Park Association. Both Diggs Sr. and Toodle were civil rights and political activists who sought to end discrimination. Diggs Sr. was the first black senator in the Michigan legislature. While Diggs was advocating for minorities in the state legislature, Toodle was advocating for the African American community on a local level, through the Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery Association. Under his leadership, the board set aside plots for families to plant “Victory Gardens” during World War II. During economic downturns, the board also offered loans to African Americans who were denied business or home loans from traditional banks.
Diggs Sr. saw an unfortunate end to his political career when he was caught up in a bribery scandal. Despite this, he was re-elected to the state legislature upon his release from prison. However, the state Senate body refused to seat him. His son, Charles C. Diggs Jr., indignant at the treatment his father received, entered the world of politics himself. Diggs Jr. ran successfully for the Michigan State Senate and won. Eventually, he sought to institute change on a federal level and became Michigan’s first African American representative. He was one of the original founders of the Congressional Black Caucus. He served until he resigned in June of 1980. He had been convicted of mail fraud and falsifying payroll cards but maintained his innocence, stating he was the victim of selective prosecution because of his race and his tireless activism on behalf of minorities around the world. Diggs Jr. passed away in 1998.
The current board members of the Detroit Memorial Park Association are all related to the original investors. Today, visitors to the cemetery located on Thirteen Mile Road will find that many prominent African Americans are buried there. Diggs Sr. and Diggs Jr. are both interred at the cemetery in Warren, as well as famous inventor Elijah McCoy, an educated and accomplished engineer whose inventions helped shape modern manufacturing processes. Florence Ballard, a founding member of the Supremes; blues musician “Baby Boy” Warren; and Phillip Wynne, whose accomplished musical career included a recording contract with the Motown Record Label, are among other historical figures who made Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery their final resting place.
Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery was the first black-owned and operated business of its kind in the state, and in 1976, the state of Michigan installed a historical marker there.
Wendy Smith is a service partner for Macomb County Human Resources and Labor Relations.