On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, the St. Louis Science Center (SLSC) celebrated a local legacy of black achievement. Lewis Diuguid, author and longtime Kansas City Star journalist, visited SLSC to share memories of his father, pioneering black chemist Lincoln Diuguid.
Lewis Diuguid’s new book, “Our Fathers: Making Black Men,” focuses on his own father and the culture of mentorship and prosperous black enterprise he inspired during many years at the head of his company, Du-Good Chemical.
Starting in 2008, Lewis Diuguid put the journalistic skills he had honed at the Kansas City Star to researching his own family history. After his father died in January of 2015, Lewis stepped down from the editorial board of the Star to spend more time on the book project.
Lincoln Diuguid’s scientific career began in the 1940s, when he was completing postdoctoral work in chemistry at Cornell University. There, he developed the chemical agent that “helps plastic be plastic,” Lewis said.
“If you want to blame plastic on someone, it would be Dad,” Lewis said. “But till the day he died, he was very upset over the fact, and he said it regularly, all he got for his work was a pat on the back and a handshake. This was something that was groundbreaking and that netted companies trillions of dollars, and he got nothing.”
The copyright for Lincoln’s invention was not owned by him, but by Cornell University and the companies it worked for. So Lincoln decided he wanted to own his own company, to ensure he could profit from his own achievements.
There was just one problem. It was 1947, and laws in St. Louis prevented black people from buying property. Lincoln had been able to succeed in academia, but he could not legally obtain a deed for the property he wanted, a former large animal hospital, even though the owner was willing to sell. The Diuguid family found a way around it – Lincoln’s relatives pooled their money, paid for the property in cash, and helped him renovate it into the lab he needed.
“It became a company that was really put together by the grit of the Diuguid family,” Lewis said.
For years, Lincoln’s company was a staple in the South Jefferson neighborhood. The laboratory manufactured cosmetics and other chemicals, and Lincoln always hired young black people from the community for laboratory jobs, as well as helping them find pathways to college and careers. The many other black-owned businesses in the neighborhood began to follow suit.
“That value, I think, was immeasurable, and it was the role that those businesses played in mentoring kids on the street to be somebody, to have a future, and then to be able to reach their dreams,” Lewis said.
Lincoln was also a staunch supporter of the Urban League and the NAACP. He took time from his busy schedule running his own company and teaching at Harris-Stowe State University in the 1960s to help the Urban League root out employment discrimination. He would apply for jobs at other chemical companies with his real credentials, but when someone from the Urban League would ask, the companies would deny he had ever applied. Catching them in that lie, Lewis said, helped open the door to stop discriminatory hiring practices.
Lewis wrote his book to offer historical perspective to young Black Lives Matter activists. “There needs to be that input from adults,” Lewis said.
To follow in those footsteps, Lewis helps train young African-American journalists in Kansas City.
In his presentation at SLSC, Lewis tied that message to the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke in the Omnimax theater, signed copies of his books and met with teen participants in SLSC’s Youth Exploring Science (YES) program.
When Du-Good Chemical closed, the family donated the laboratory’s glassware to SLSC, where it is used in presentations explaining scientific concepts to children.
Lewis said writing about his family’s history was an easy task compared to many of the stories he has written in the past, although the Diuguid family’s story was not the only focus of “Our Fathers”.
“My family was a big part of it, but it wasn’t the only part,” Lewis said. “What I was trying to capture was a community effort to help kids who were on the street be more than they ever dreamed possible.”
Lincoln Diuguid died in 2015 ten days short of his 98th birthday. For the last several years of his life, he struggled with dementia after a brain injury in 2006. Lincoln was attempting to help someone new to the area, Lewis said, a Katrina evacuee who instead beat Lincoln severely. He was able to recover enough to continue running DuGood Chemical until 2011.
“He lived an incredible life, but it was tragically cut short,” Lewis said.
Asking about Lincoln’s influence on him, Lewis said, is like asking a fish what it’s like to be surrounded by water.
“I never really knew anything other than striving for excellence,” he said, “because that’s what we’ve always grown up to do, my siblings and I.”