Lewis Diuguid

Lewis Diuguid: Museum displays familiar black history

The George B. Vashon African American Research Center Museum opened last year in north St. Louis. It contains many items and photographs worth seeing during Black History Month.
The George B. Vashon African American Research Center Museum opened last year in north St. Louis. It contains many items and photographs worth seeing during Black History Month. The Kansas City Star

The four desks at my dad’s St. Louis chemical company stayed piled high with months of science journals, letters, his research notes and papers from his students.

But no one was to disturb any of it. Dad knew exactly where he left things, why they were there and what he intended to do with them. So it was odd to see clear space on two of those desks at the George B. Vashon African American Research Center Museum in St. Louis.

But it was also gratifying to know that key items from the company Lincoln Diuguid started in 1947 after post-doctorate studies at Cornell University had been preserved. Du-Good Chemical Laboratories and Manufacturers began in a what had been a large animal hospital the Diuguid family retrofitted.

For 64 years, Dad kept the company alive, only closing for good when he went into a nursing home in 2011. He died last year. He would have been 99 this Saturday.

But Dad and the legend he became live on in the museum that Calvin Riley started in the former mansion, turned mortuary, turned church, which Riley rehabbed and has opened. For Black History Month, the museum is where people can go to research black accomplishments and culture. Riley, a retired St. Louis schoolteacher, also was one of Dad’s college students.

“He was rough — good, but he was rough,” Riley said, echoing what I’ve heard Dad’s chemistry and physical science students say for decades. Students who had to make up classwork often did it at Dad’s company under his intense scrutiny. My siblings and I worked there from our earliest memories through college and beyond. Riley had products we manufactured, shipped and sold nationwide to black drugstores, mechanics, beauty salons, barbershops and distributors. Dad advertised in black newspapers and radio stations and had us mail calendars to customers. He’d hire kids off the street to help with the production, and then sell them on science careers.

Company artifacts, letters, photos and cancer research papers in Riley’s museum tell the story. Some of the pictures I took for Dad to accompany scientific papers that he presented at American Chemical Society conventions. Other photos of Dad with his Cornell classmates and the men with whom he pledged Omega Psi Phi fraternity at West Virginia State College in the 1930s I’d never seen.

The museum includes Dad’s laboratory glassware, scales he used to weigh compound samples down to fractions of a gram and a microscope.

“People come through, and it blows them away,” Riley said. “They say there’s nothing like it in St. Louis.”

He’s right, but it was the everyday stuff of my youth.

The museum also houses photographs of civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., autographed pictures of legendary black singers, musicians, sports figures and entertainers such as Jimi Hendrix, Sam Cooke, the Marvelettes, Satchel Paige, Louis Armstrong and Little Anthony and the Imperials. President Barack Obama is in the museum, too.

The museum contains black-face antique items and minstrel show images. It has a 20th century Formica top kitchen table, chairs, decorative shelves, canisters, cabinets and wall hangings. There are black beautician and barber tools, work table and mirror — some pulled from Dad’s company. Dad had rented space to beauticians.

There are items from Stowe Teachers College, which before the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 was where black students were forced to go. After the high court ruling, outlawing legal segregation, Stowe closed, and Dad with the black faculty and students were merged into Harris Teachers College. That’s at the museum, too.

The museum is a treasure. More people need to enjoy the black history it has to offer.