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Most neighborhoods in Lakeland are named after a lake or another physical feature. Only three named after a person, and the biggest is Paul A. Diggs. So who was Paul A. Diggs and what was his influence on the northwest Lakeland neighborhood that bears his name?
Diggs was recognized for his community involvement in 1993 when residents successfully petitioned the city to change the name of the community, according to Kevin Logan, Lakeland’s special collections librarian.
Diggs was a social worker who “made a significant impact on the black northwest community in Lakeland during the 1930s, ’40s and ‘50s,” Lloyd Parker wrote on northwestlakeland.com, his website about local African-American history. “He ran Diggs Soda Shop in Clark’s Pharmacy on N. Dakota Avenue, and served as director of Washington Park High School Library, and as manager of Lake Ridge public housing complex.”
Another local historian, LaFrancine K. Burton, told much the same story in a 2002 column in The Ledger.
“He was a leader with the March of Dimes, was chairman of the Polk County Health Committee for blacks, sponsored school plays and oratorical contests, organized a library, managed the Lake Ridge Housing Projects, organized the Negro Auxiliary Police Force, organized a Boy Scout troop, successfully lobbied for a recreational center for black citizens and much more,” she wrote. “Diggs was a published writer and was a recognized artist whose paintings of Florida scenery were exhibited across the country.”
Parker adds that Diggs was one of the writers chosen to document Florida communities for the Federal Writers Project during the 1930s. A Google search leads to dozens of references to his Depression-era interviews and photos for the federal agency.
What Diggs is really noted for locally was his contribution to the young people in the community, and he introduced some children to Boy Scouts of America, according to Doris Bailey, longtime community activist and President/CEO of The Bailey Group.
One of the scouts who was influenced by Diggs is John Anthony, 86, a retired administrator from the Washington, D.C., public school system. He said Diggs is one of the reasons he became an educator. “He took boy scouts that went on to be coaches and teachers,” Anthony said.
Diggs spoke before the City Commission regularly, and didn’t want to see his community taken advantage of with rental fees, said Anthony, who participated in the effort to name the community after Diggs.
“He is one of several people who contributed immensely to the African-American community,” Anthony said. “He always tried to have something of essence in the community,” Anthony said.
Parker said he’s been told Diggs left Lakeland in the 1950s to become head of housing at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. A 1963 article in the Baltimore Afro-American refers to him as the late Dr. Paul A. Diggs and said he was dean of men at Bethune-Cookman.
The Paul A. Diggs neighborhood lies between Florida Avenue on the east and Lincoln Avenue on the west. Its southern boundary is Memorial Boulevard and goes north to Modest Street. Previously, some called it the MLK Jr. neighborhood since Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue runs through its center.
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