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On December 25, 1915, a lady of noble heart opened her home to the children of her community and gave them a Christmas party with refreshments and gifts. But for the kindness and generosity of this lady, the 15 little girls who came to the party would have had no Christmas at all. The lady’s name was Sarah Williams Jones and her Christmas day party has been held every year for the past 99 years.

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The 100th annual Christmas party will be held on December 25, 2015, from 8:00 a.m. until noon at the Dr. Piper Center for Social Services at 2607 Dr. Ella Piper Way. Some 400 children are expected this year. Volunteers, gifts for children from infancy to 14 years, and at least 100 shiny new bicycles are urgently needed. Each child will receive lunch and goodies, including a gift of his or her choice. Raffles will be held for the shiny new bicycles.

The First Christmas Party

In 1915, the children who came to Mrs. Jones’ party played in a fenced yard filled with fruit trees and flowering bushes. The little girls were dressed in their Sunday best and Mrs. Jones probably served them freshly squeezed lemonade with homemade candies and cakes. On the table outside she may have set baskets filled with tangerines and nuts, and the presents for the children were simple toys like water whistles and little hand-painted wooden animals on wheels. They also may have received freshly laundered hand-me-down clothes from the white lady that Mrs. Jones worked for in town, for the children lived in Safety Hill, or what the white folks called “colored town.” It was called “colored town” because the peppermint-sticky fingertips that touched with reverence the white children’s hand-me-downs were a variety of colors, from dark chocolate to milk chocolate to caramel.

Mrs. Jones’ daughter, for instance, was a lovely vanilla caramel. She was beautiful and dressed like the ladies in magazines. She was from New York and held her head very high. Her name was Miss Ella.

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History knows her as Dr. Ella Mae Piper.

Ella Mertis Bailor

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The documented facts about the woman whose legacy is the Dr. Piper Center for Social Services and its annual Christmas party are few. We are fairly certain that she was born in Brunswick, GA, in 1884, the only child of Sarah Williams and Ned Bailor and that her given name was Ella Mertis. It is thought that Sarah brought Ella to Fort Myers around the turn of the century, when Ella was a teenager.

The inarguable fact is, that whether Sarah Williams and Ella came down out of Georgia rocking like teeter toys in a buckboard, or gripping the railing of a steam ship, their coming would have a rippling effect into the lives of people living in Fort Myers long after both their names were carved on tombstones.

Ella Mae Jones

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It is not unlikely that a dreamy teenage Ella changed her middle name from Mertis to Mae. And when her mother remarried, she adopted, judiciously perhaps, her step-father’s last name. The Joneses owned property and a nice home at the approximate intersection of Victoria and Cleveland Avenue, but at this time, Fort Myers was, for the most part, still a ramshackle affair of wood buildings. The only brick building in town was owned by Sarah’s employer, whose family lived in a pretty house across Jackson Street from the store. We may suppose that Ella giggled over her mama’s having moved to Florida and gone to work for a woman named “Florida, ” but we may be fairly certain that Sarah called her employer, “Mrs. Heitman.”

Miss Ella

Dr. Ella Mae Piper

It is generally believed that Ella attended Spelman Seminary, a college for women of African descent in Atlanta, but it is a fact that in 1915, at the age of 31, Ella M. Jones graduated from Professor Rohrer’s Institute of Beauty Culture in New York and then accepted employment as a masseuse and hairdresser at the Twilight Inn resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York. In late 1915 or early1916, she returned to Fort Myers and opened Fort Myers’ first beauty parlor on Second Street.

In early 1917, Miss Ella ran an ad for her ultra-chic services in the newspaper: “Artistic Hair Dressing. Facial and Body Massage, with Swedish Movements and electrical vibration. Beautifying with high frequency a specialty. Ella M. Jones. Phone 132. At 134 Jackson St.”

A month later, the Fort Myers Press announced that Henry Ford had arrived at Punta Rassa on his yacht, and that although there was insufficient water in the river, he and “members of his party” had come on in to his newly acquired home in Fort Myers. (May we assume that they came in an automobile by way of our new McGregor Boulevard?) After the ardors of her journey, it is probable that Mrs. Ford learned from her friend, Mrs. Edison, about the new beauty shop in town, for they both became Miss Ella’s clients. And with them, of course, came the other ladies of society in Fort Myers. Miss Ella prospered.

Mrs. Ella Mae Piper

Throughout Fort Myers’ exuberant spending spree of the 1920s, Miss Ella’s business flourished. She married Frank S. Piper of Washington, DC, built a commodious, 2-story home on the Safety Hill side of Evans Avenue, closed the little shop on Jackson Street, and opened a better one on the “white” side of Evans. She also opened a soft drink-bottling plant.

Caught Between Two Worlds

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Miss Ella was caught between two worlds; she earned her income on the “white” side of the street and lived on the “colored” side. But in every known fact of her life, it is manifestly true that she never forsook her pride or her integrity to pander to the one or to abandon the other.

During the bountiful decade of the ‘20s, Miss Ella poured money earned from her businesses into restructuring and improving the lives of the people in Safety Hill. She helped finance the first hospital for black people in Fort Myers (Jones Walker) and the first high school for black children (Dunbar Community). For the first time, the children of Safety Hill had the opportunity to become high school graduates.

From their new school, Safety Hill took the proud name of the internationally acclaimed, African-American poet, novelist and playwright, Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poem, Sympathy, would inspire the title of Maya Angelou’s book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

First Lady of Dunbar Heights

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Miss Ella’s independence and business success as a woman, and in particular as a woman “of color,” and her philanthropy, on both the community and an individual level, elevated her in the eyes of the community to the status of community benefactress and counselor. She gave groceries and she gave advice. She helped at least one high school graduate, and possibly others, obtain a scholarship to Tuskegee Institute in Georgia. She supported students seeking higher education with clothes and money for expenses. When her mother died in 1926, she continued the tradition of the Christmas day party, providing, with the help of her church and other community organizations, and of her friends in white society, refreshments and gifts for hundreds of children.

Christmas party at Miss Ella's home circa 1944

Christmas party at Miss Ella’s home circa 1944

Miss Ella owned her own automobile and hired a chauffeur to drive it, perhaps as an extension of her philanthropy. It is said that she spent her summers with relatives in New York City. It is certain that Miss Ella was the personal masseuse of the first lady of Fort Myers, Mina Edison, and rumored that she was a friend of the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt.

For the miracles she performed as a chiropodist, the white ladies in Fort Myers affectionately called her, “Dr. Piper.”

The people to whom she gave everything called her simply and always, “Miss Ella.”

Miss Ella’s Legacy

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Miss Ella died in 1954 at the age of 70. Her legacy is the Dr. Piper Center for Social Services, built on the site of her home on the corner of Evans and Dr. Ella Piper Way (formerly Mango Street). Miss Ella had left her home to the city to be used as a shelter for the “poor, indigent, or physically handicapped residents of Fort Myers and Lee County.”

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Today, the Dr. Piper Center for Social Services offers programs designed to “enhance the social and economic well-being of those 55 and older individuals who reside in Southwest Florida and make a positive impact in the lives of frail elderly, at risk youth, special needs children and our communities.”

Miss Ella’s less tangible legacy derives from her embrace, in her life, in her heart and in her DNA, of both black and white people; its benefaction is precious. Just as the social services provided in her name are interracial and intercultural, so the little hands clasped together in excitement at her Christmas party are all colors—dark chocolate, milk chocolate, caramel and vanilla.

Children of all colors are invited to Miss Ella’s 100th Christmas day party on December 25, 2015. Bicycles of all colors gratefully accepted. To donate, please call 239-332-5346.

For more information about the party and about Dr. Piper Center for Social Services, please visit http://www.drpipercenter.org.

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