Some employees at the Smithsonian, say directors of museums or curators, are well documented through the records in our collections. We must learn about many others, however, through their interactions with the Institution’s leadership. For example, the Archives learned more about Meredith Smith Diggs, an early African American employee at the Smithsonian, through his correspondence with Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird.
Born in 1861 in Leesburg, Virginia, Diggs was employed at the United States National Museum and also worked at the United States Fish Commission as a messenger in 1881 when Secretary Baird was the head of the organization (while also serving as Secretary of the Smithsonian). Through records from the U.S. Register of Civil, Military, and Naval Service, 1863-1959 database, we find that Diggs was a messenger at the United States National Museum in 1883, and then in 1886 he was listed as a clerk reporting to William Jones Rhees, Chief Clerk of the Smithsonian. Next, Diggs became a messenger in the assistant director's office during the tenure of George Brown Goode in 1889 and then a copyist in 1890.
While this lays out a portion of Diggs’ employment history, in reading through his correspondence with Baird, we know that he was much more than just a messenger to the Secretary and that he began his work at the United States National Museum as early as 1878. In his correspondence, Diggs discussed the various activities and responsibilities that he had in taking care of and managing the Baird home in Washington, D.C. He answered correspondence received at the home, managed its maintenance, and ensured that bills were paid. Interestingly, in a letter dated August 7, 1878, Diggs wrote to inform Baird that he delivered a book to Solomon Brown as requested.
Another figure that adds some more detail to the inner workings of the Baird house is Sarah C. Diggs, Meredith’s mother, who worked as a housekeeper at the Baird home. In a letter dated July 29, 1878, Sarah wrote to Mary Baird, the Secretary’s wife, about the continuing construction work occurring at the their home and some unrest that occurred in D.C. as result of labor wages. Sarah also gives us a peak into the expenses that she oversaw to keep the Baird home at running, from ordering jars for preserving food to getting the stove polished.
Meredith Diggs passed away on February 5, 1914 at the age of 53. He was survived by his wife Mary, their son George, and their daughters Sarah, Alice, and Mary. Another small piece of Diggs lives on at the Smithsonian, for in 1896 he donated a brass token, or jeton, of Louis XV, King of France and Navarre.
As I continue my work at the Smithsonian I am continually reminded of the records that I create and how they may in fact inform my own story at the Institution. Like Diggs, I too have a little piece of my life that will live on at the Smithsonian in the form of my wife and mine's wedding planning binder that we donated to the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History.
The composition of this post was greatly aided by the foundational research of Terrica Gibson and the previous reference work of Kelly Crawford, Archives of American Gardens. My thanks to them for all of their research into the Diggs family.
- Spencer Fullerton Baird Papers, 1833-1889, Record Unit 7002, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution, Personnel Records, 1892-1952, Accession 05-123, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1891, Biodiversity Heritage Library