In every generation, certain men and women stand out. In the early years of this century in Fort Myers, Ella Piper, an African-American born into poverty, proved herself one of those remarkable people. She overcame the twin handicaps of her race and sex to become a successful entrepreneur, and despite segregation she forged friendships with blacks and whites, including one of the most influential women in Florida.
Born on March 8, 1884, in the southern Georgia town of Bruns-wick, Ella was the only daughter of Ned Bailor and Sarah Williams. Around the turn of the century, when Ella was a teen-ager, Sarah Williams and her daughter moved to Fort Myers, where Williams found work as a servant in the home of H.E. Heitman, a prominent businessman. A real estate tycoon, Heitman also owned a local general store and managed Thomas Edison's winter home. Sarah married again in Fort Myers, and Ella adopted the last name of her new stepfather, a Mr. Jones.
Ella might have had some schooling in Georgia, or perhaps her mother managed to scrape together enough money to have her educated privately, because there were no schools for blacks in Fort Myers at that time, and would not be until 1911. According to Fort Myers history buff Vivian Hill, Ella attended Atlanta's Spelman College, a school for black women founded by missionaries. There is no record of her graduation; she may have had to abandon her education in order to support herself.
Little is known of Ella's life during her 20s, but a certificate now in the Fort Myers Historical Museum shows that at the age of 30, in 1915, she graduated from Rohrer's Institute of Beauty Culture in New York City. Later that year she worked as a hairdresser and masseuse at the Twilight Inn in New York. It must have been an upscale establishment, since a ledger at the museum shows a shampoo cost a then-pricey $1.25.
In 1916, ella moved back to Fort Myers and established the Fort Myers Beauty Salon on Jackson Street across from Englehart's Mortuary. It was on the outskirts of Safety Hill, as the black area of town was known at the time. And it was a pioneering business, the first beauty salon in Fort Myers. In order to survive Ella had to attract affluent white customers. It was an ambitious undertaking for a black woman in those times, but whether it was her experience working with wealthy clients in New York, the force of her personality or her skill as a beautician, the town's leading ladies were soon regular customers at Ella's shop.
In addition to "Artistic Hair Dressing," Ella pampered her clients with expert massages. A 1917 advertisement from the Fort Myers Press boasts, "Facial & Body massage, with Swedish movements." Like many elite spas of the day, she also offered electric shock treatments, advertised in the newspaper as "electric vibration. Beautifying with high frequency a specialty." As frightening as it sounds to us today, in the 1920s, mild electric shocks were thought to restore youthful energy and beauty.
One of Ella's customers knew a bit about electricity. Thomas Alva Edison often came along when his wife Mina had her hair done. The Fort Myers Press, which seldom reported on black residents, noted, "There is always a place that Mr. and Mrs. Thomas A. Edison never fail to visit.and that is Ella Jones Piper's Beauty Shop." The paper reported on one visit to the shop in 1922, when Edison was the sole male in a group that included his wife, his sister and his sister-in-law. The three women had their hair done while he sent out for a cool drink.
As her business grew, Ella hired an assistant, a young girl named Anna Heard. She and Ella had such a close relationship that many people assumed they were mother and daughter. Ella sent Anna to beauty college and then put her in charge of the shop. It left Ella free to focus on her "chiropody," a treatment for the hands and feet she had learned at Rohrer's Institute. Like today's podiatrists, Ella treated skin conditions and took care of her client's nails. Soon she was making house calls to some of the most influential citizens of Lee County. Her success with difficult cases earned her the title, "Doctor Ella."
Bernise Davis, the elegant widow of Sidney Davis, who for years owned a downtown Fort Myers men's shop, still remembers Ella's salon on Evans Avenue. "Inside it was a little cottage, really, with white curtains in the windows," she says. "The beauty shop was airy and cool, not cramped like the salons are today. They were very elegant women, Ella and Ann."
Cosmopolitan and adventurous, Ella enjoyed traveling to large cities in the North, where she would scout out the most current styles and beauty techniques for her clients. She returned from one trip in late 1920 with a husband. On Dec. 21, she married Frank S. Piper of Washington, D.C. In 1925, the two purchased property on Evans Avenue. After renting from others, Ella Piper, as she was now called, wanted a shop of her own. But as the business bloomed, the relationship with her husband became strained. In the 1920s, married women, whether white or black, could not own or manage their own businesses without their husbands' approval.
According to Fort Myers historian Prudy Taylor Board, Ella found this stifling. She had ideas of her own and resented the idea of submitting to her husband. Finally, Ella petitioned the state for permission to buy and sell property and conduct business independently. Surprisingly, the state granted her request. She was a free agent. After this, Frank Piper apparently faded from her life.
During the economic boom of the 1920s, Ella launched another enterprise. With a group of other investors, she formed the Big Four Bottling Company, which bottled soft drinks. The bottling plant was located on the southeast corner of her property on Mango Street and Evans Avenue. Some say the name originated from the soda's original retail price of four cents a bottle. Others cite the soda's four flavors: orange, grape, peach and cola. Whatever the inspiration, after only a few months, Big Four had a share of the soda market.
Her businesses afforded Ella a comfortable lifestyle. She dressed in fashionable clothes purchased in New York and Chicago. Studio photographs show her to be a stunning woman of considerable presence. In one picture, she wears a stylish large-brimmed hat and a brocaded dress. In another photo taken on her mother's porch, she sips tea while wearing a simple day dress. Even in everyday clothes, she seemed to stand out. As long time resident Jacob Johnson remembers, "People took notice of her."
Ella traveled throughout the country, but spent nearly every summer in New York. According to Linda Holdsclaw, the daughter of Ella's white physician, Ella always traveled first class. Like most Southern stations, the local Atlantic Coast Line Railroad segregated black and white patrons. The depot had separate waiting rooms, drinking fountains and rest room facilities. Once they reached the platform, black and white patrons were sent to different cars. Only when they traveled above the Mason-Dixon line were blacks allowed to move to another section. Yet, according to Holdsclaw, Ella would be sitting erectly in a first-class seat when the train pulled away from the Fort Myers station. "She was a surprising lady," says Holdsclaw. "She carried herself like a lady, but never talked down to people. She never acted like she was better than anyone else."
In 1926, ella's mother died. it must have been a difficult time for her; her mother was her only relative in Fort Myers, and the two had always been close. In addition to her position with the Heitmans, her mother had been active in charity work. Each year she hosted Christmas tree parties in Safety Hill, as the black neighborhood was known at the time. What started out in 1915, as a party for 15 little girls, grew rapidly. Following her mother's death, Ella took over the celebrations, ensuring every child at least one present. Before long the annual event would provide toys for hundreds of boys and girls who arrived every Christmas morning for the party on her front lawn.
The yearly Christmas parties were only part of Ella's community work. She was active in the Mt. Olive Church and founded the Tranquilla Temple chapter of the Daughters of the Elks. She helped to fund the Jones Walker Hospital for blacks, and also gave money to Williams Academy. The only public school for blacks, Williams was woefully underfunded by the county. In 1916, the school enrolled 200 students but only had four teachers. Textbooks were old cast-offs from the white schools. Most had pages torn out and whole lessons missing. "Those books were so torn up," remembers Mary Ware. "They had pages missing and marks all over them. I never had a new book while I was in school."
Those who remember Ella say that she gave generously-and quietly-to individuals as well as organizations. She would anonymously help pay for funerals and anniversary parties, and more than one struggling family arose in the morning to discover groceries piled neatly on their front porch.
She encouraged the children of Dunbar, as the black area of town was later called, to believe in themselves and their futures. One of her young protégés, Josie Parks, remembers, "She always wanted people to do what was right. She'd say, 'Look up! Stand up! Stand up for what is right!" In the Daughters of the Elks, she coached children in oration and took them to conferences throughout the state. For some, it was their first exposure to a larger world.
Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Ella helped a number of young black men and women attend college. To some she gave encouragement; others she helped apply for scholarships; for a few, it was money for tuition and books. Mary Ware was always grateful to Ella, who gave her son so much clothing to go off to college that he was able to share with other students.
But the Depression brought hard times to Fort Myers and to the already struggling families in Dunbar. Unemployment was high. People cut back on all but the most essential things. Fewer and fewer women could afford regular hair appointments at the parlor. Ella's soda business also suffered.
Ella could not afford many of the niceties to which she had grown accustomed. And she struggled to continue her philanthropy. She had encouraged one young orphan, James Johnson, to apply to Tuskegee Institute. He and four of his brothers and sisters had brought themselves up after they were left orphaned. "We got by, but it was tough," Johnson remembers today. James Johnson was accepted by Tuskegee and enrolled in 1937, but his scholarship fell through. Ella tried to pay for the tuition herself, but she was not able to come up with the money. Johnson had to leave school and come back to Fort Myers. The whole family felt his disappointment, his brother Jacob recalls, but they accepted it philosophically. "We were used to being devastated.we were accustomed to rolling with the punches," he says. Ella must have felt this disappointment keenly and may have even felt responsible for dashing his hopes.
Despite the Great Depression, there was some progress in the Dunbar community. Enterprising citizens applied for funds from one of President Roosevelt's New Deal Programs. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded Fort Myers' first public black high school. On April 13, 1937, Ella Piper helped to dedicate the new Dunbar High School.
For months before, Ella Piper had lobbied her friends to support the school. One of them was Mina Hughes, the remarried widow of Thomas Edison. Mina was head of the Fruit Flower and Plant Guild, which selected the Dunbar grounds as a service project. In addition to improving the landscape, the project encouraged interaction between the black and white communities. Mina joined Ella on the podium at the school's dedication. But, as an editorial in the Fort Myers News-Press made clear, her presence there was unusual. "Mrs. Hughes herself will be a speaker at the program to which a special invitation has been extended to white guests." The subtle message was there. The former Mrs. Edison aside, mixing of the races would not generally be acceptable.
By world war II, ella was approaching 60 and app-eared content with her life. That's why many in Fort Myers were surprised when she married a 30-year-old sergeant stationed at the local Army Air base. His name was Cleon R. Harvey, and he came from Providence, Rhode Island. According to the social pages of the Providence newspaper, Harvey was one of the "very popular members of the younger set, and.one of the most eligible young men" in town. The two were married on March 21, 1944. The ceremony was conducted at the bride's home at 1914 Evans Ave. Ella, who was now Ella Harvey, was less than truthful on her marriage certificate. Perhaps conscious that she was twice her new husband's age, she recorded her age as 54.
Ella's second marriage was no smoother than her first, and before long the two were separated. Her will reflected the depths of the couple's estrangement. She stated it was her wish to leave her husband exactly one dollar.
Once more on her own, Ella poured herself into business and her community. She helped to establish a black chapter of the Red Cross. She sponsored musical jubilees, and helped to bring famous black entertainers to the Dunbar neighborhood. Both blacks and whites attended these performances, which were staged at Mt. Olive Church and McCullum Hall. She also opened her home to baseball players from the Negro League. These young men, and occasionally their wives, were not allowed to stay at the white hotels, but were welcomed at 1914 Evans Ave.
Ella also continued her friendship with Mina Miller Hughes. For years Ella visited Mina's McGregor Boulevard home to treat her feet and administer massages. A well-worn massage table still located in Mina's dressing area is evidence of those frequent visits. During their sessions, the two were able to talk privately. The depth of their friendship is demonstrated by an April 19, 1947 letter. At a time when Mina was saddened by loss-in recent years she had lost two husbands, two brothers and her closest sister-Ella tried to comfort her. She declared, "You above all, who mean everything to me. I can never tell you how dear you are to me. Ones like you are not born every day. You are one of God's chosen children. You were put here to act as a medium through God to heal and help human nature. Everyone can't do it. That's a gift."
On June 13, 1954, the woman who had been known as Ella Mertis Bailor, Ella M. Jones, Ella Piper and Ella Harvey died of a stroke at Lee Memorial Hospital. She was 69. Although Ella had been suffering from health problems for years, her death was a shock to the community. All over Fort Myers, people talked about the loss of the local business legend and pillar of the community.
In her will, Ella stipulated that her Evans Avenue home and furnishings be retained for the use of Anna Heard and her brother-in-law for as long as they lived. Her beauty shop was to be rented to Heard at a reasonable rent. Following their deaths, her property and remaining funds were to be donated to the city of Fort Myers for the benefit of the "colored residents of Fort Myers."
It took 22 years, but Ella's gift was recognized in 1976, when the city of Fort Myers dedicated the Dr. Ella Piper Center in her name. Today, the modest concrete building on Evans Avenue provides home health care, meals and recreation programs for senior citizens. But the real legacy of this extraordinary woman is in the lives of those who knew her. Her determination to transcend the limits of her time and place made her an inspiring example and leader. Her unconventional aspirations and independent spirit may have undermined her marriages and left her lonely at times. But in business and public service, her strength of character gave her great power. She could have used it in selfish ways. Instead she chose to improve the lives and futures of those around her. Irrepressible and original, she was an extraordinary woman living in extremely difficult times.
To learn more about black history in Lee County, you can visit the Williams Academy Black History Museum. This new museum, which opened last January, is in Clemente Park, at 1936 Henderson Ave. (941) 332-8778.