Author finds the formula for success at Du-Good Chemical on South Jefferson
For more than 50 years, Lincoln I. Diuguid worked as a researcher and inventor at his Du-Good Chemical company on South Jefferson Avenue in St. Louis. But it was his formula for community engagement that would have a lasting impact on countless African-American youths.
It’s a story that his son Lewis Diuguid believes people need to hear today. His book “Our Fathers: Making Black Men,’’ details how Lincoln “Doc” Diuguid mentored the children of the neighborhood, stressing hard work and education. He and the other African-American businessmen along the 1200 block of South Jefferson were role models in the 1950s and 1960s as they strove to live the American Dream, despite segregation and the nation’s racial divide.
“I think that what we've seen in the '70s, '80es and '90s is adults separating themselves from young people and the role that they need to play in young people's lives. And when that happens, then we're asking young people to do it on their own,’’ Lewis Diuguid said.
“It's why the Black Lives Matter movement began — to try to make black lives matter again. Well, they matter if adults — not just parents and not just teachers but all adults — get engaged in the lives of young people. Not to do the wagging finger or to rain down on them like Zeus but to provide the mentorship and instruction and guidance that young people crave so badly,” he said.
Lincoln Diuguid was the first African-American to earn advanced degrees from Cornell University, but he refused to pass for white to be hired by American companies. With the support of his family, he bought an old veterinary hospital building at 1215 South Jefferson in 1947 and established Du-Good Chemical Laboratories. He also taught chemistry at Harris-Stowe State University for nearly 40 years. He died in 2015.
Like his siblings, Lewis Diuguid, 62, grew up working in his father’s laboratory. He now lives in Kansas City and worked as a journalist at the Kansas City Star for just under 40 years. He will be at the George B. Vashon African-American Museum from noon to 3 p.m. on Sept. 23 to discuss his book. A room in the museum is filled with laboratory equipment from the Du-Good chemical company.
Diuguid is pronounced “DEW-gid,” while the chemical company's name was pronounced “DEW-good,” he said.
“And part of the reason Dad did that is that he said no one would ever be able to pronounce our last name, and so this way people would be able to say it right. And it's catchy enough to stick with people,’’ Diuguid said.
Here are excerpts from a recent St. Louis Public Radio interview with Diuguid:
Your book isn't just about your memories of your father and growing up in St. Louis. You have researched this work like the journalist that you are.
Diuguid: I wanted to make this as real as possible to show that the kids who came to the company — and to the other black businesses on the block — they had their problems. They had their issues. But they got the kind of instruction — the training, the mentoring — from not only Dad but the other black men on the block that helped to build them into good, solid citizens.
In writing a column for the newspaper every so often I would feature Dad, his company, his work ethic. Back in the late Eighties, my mother had implored me as a writer for the newspaper to focus more on black men because black men at the time were getting a pretty bad rap, in part because of drugs and crime and just everything that was negative about our cities, our communities. And she knew that these were not the black men that she had grown up with. This was not the black man she married, and it had nothing to do with any of the black men she knew.
So I turned my attention as a columnist to writing columns about African-American males and boys and families and how we love our families and our children just as much as anyone. And so that became sort of the instruction for doing the book. I began the research on the book in December 2008, and I would work on it a little at a time. And then many, many, many trips to libraries and institutions here in St. Louis to actually do the research.
I had memories because I grew up in Du-Good Chemical Laboratories and knew many of the people that frequented the company. But I needed to do the research to make my memories whole.
You write about how your father’s family helped him buy a building that housed a fading veterinary business and repurposed it as his laboratory.
Diuguid: That building was constructed in 1880 as a large animal hospital and Dad, his father and some of his brothers actually went in and tore out a lot of the animal stalls, not having a lot of money because they sank so much of the family resources into buying the building with cash. They took the wood from the animal stalls and made the benches for the labs and used a lot of the metal from the cages to make the retaining areas for the glassware that Dad would use in analytical work. And so it was really the family's ingenuity that made this chemical company possible.
The large animal hospital had pretty much reached the limit of what it could do in St. Louis. When it started, horses and buggies were the way people got around, and by the time it was finished, the automobile was the king of the road and horses and buggies were outmoded.
Dad's company started at a time when St. Louis was the going place for chemical companies.
I mean when you think of Mallinckrodt, Dow, and Monsanto, his company really was right in the center of what was taking place there. But he also manufactured different products — a lot of hair products and cosmetics and cleaners that were marketed almost exclusively to black businesses, drugstores, beauticians and barbers.
Because of segregation at the time, it created a ready market for Du-Good Chemical. And for about three decades, the business thrived. But just like a lot of black businesses, it saw a downturn as integration took hold. And that very defined market evaporated as people moved away, and they had the opportunity to go into other stores, other places. And then other manufacturers began to replicate the products that the black manufacturers were so good at doing for the black consumer. And so all of these things occurred, and it just wiped away a lot of the business that black businesses depended on.
Why did your father decide to start his own chemical company?
Diuguid: His dad was a brakeman for the Norfolk and Western Railway, and he insisted on his kids getting a college education. So Dad went to West Virginia State, a historically black college, along with his brothers. And then he went on to get his Ph.D. from Cornell and then did post studies from 1945 to 1947. But he found that a lot of his work, which was groundbreaking, was not his intellectual property. It belonged to the university. While he was at Cornell, he did research on developing different treatments for malaria and he did research on developing the agent that helps plastic to be the plastic that we know today. And if he were the owner of that, he would have been a billionaire almost instantly.
So he decided that instead of going to work for another company that would take his intellectual property, he would go to work for himself.
Dad also was a very fair-complected African-American, and he was told when he was thinking of chemistry as a career that, “You shouldn't do that. It will only make you sad and disappointed because you'll never get hired.’’ He was told when he went to apply for jobs after getting his Ph.D. that he would be hired as someone who was white and he would have to pass for white. And that was for him the hill too far. He would always say, “If you're passing as white, you're failing as black.’’
Your father was well-known outside of St. Louis, as well.
Diuguid: Dad was larger than life, really not just in St. Louis but all over the country. He would go to the American Chemical Society meetings and pass out business cards and people would hear of what he was doing in St. Louis.
And so they would come to his door at the company from all over the country. And he would get mail from all over the world with different things — papers that he had authored on different processes that only chemists could understand.
And, yes, mentoring kids not only in the neighborhood, but all over the city. All over the state. Because people would say, ‘’You need to go and talk to Doc Diuguid because he’s been at this since 1947.’’ And he could give you pointers on starting a business and the product development and so many other things that go into that kind of work.
What was the 1200 block of South Jefferson like in those days? What kind of businesses were there?
Diuguid: Well, the block was really an amazing place, and we didn't know it at the time. We just thought this was normal. But on the southwest corner was Sam's cleaners and tailors — I don't remember the exact name of it, but it was there that Dad would get his suits cleaned and tailored.
Down the block, there was the auto mechanic’s place, Earl McDaniel’s. In front of Earl’s was the church that Reverend Nance had. Just across the alley was Shorty's shoeshine shop. These were businesses that fit the times. There were cleaners and there was a need for a tailor to alter clothes and Shorty's was a place where men got their shoes shined. And Shorty’s also sold Cokes and cigarettes.
Down the street from Shorty’s was a grocery store, and it was a black grocer. We had the benefit of a black-owned grocery store, and there was no food desert. Because there was a need, and it was filled by African-Americans.
And the Do-Good building is still there?
Diuguid: Yes, as a matter of fact. And this is good news. The building is owned by a roofing company, and the guy was able to get the building a historic places designation. So, it’s actually been tuckpointed, redone, reroofed and it is a going business again.
You write about working at Du-Good Chemical, even as a young child. In a way, you grew up there.
Diuguid:. I always joke with people that Dad and Mom's idea of when we should go to work was when we could hold our bladders, our bowels and a broom. And so the first job was sweeping the floor. Second job, emptying the trash and then it just increased from there, the responsibilities.
We were able to work and still manage as kids do to play and have fun. I mean I can't begin to tell you how fascinating it was to beg Dad for a bicycle, and he said, ‘What are you begging me for a bicycle for? There are a million parts from stolen bikes up and down the alley. Just go and pick up what you need. Bring it back, and then we'll put it together.’’ And so he gave me the germ of an idea of how to build bikes, and I built six different bicycles. I still have and still use one of those bikes.
It must have been hard for your father when the times changed and demand for his products declined.
Diuguid: Dad was incredible in his resilience and in his belief that as times changed he would have to change to keep up with the times.
He always had his work at Harris-Stowe, and he did that until 1982 when he retired after almost 40 years of teaching.
And then he concentrated on cancer research. And he developed a patent for what he called a gas saver that would boost engine efficiency. That went for a while. He was just a tinkerer all of the time. In the later years, he was showing me this glass that he had made from waste from the manufacture of beer. And he thought that was really cool and maybe there would be a product that some company would be interested in.
What do you hope people will take away from your book?
Diuguid: I would love for young people to be able to read this book and see what someone who had everything stacked against him was able to accomplish and to be successful. I would love for teachers to use it as a teaching tool. I would really love for adults to see what can be accomplished by just being engaged in the lives of young people. I would like for people to see that they have a role to play — and that sitting on the bench is not an option.
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard