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Encore: Remembering the Life & Legacy of Dr. Ella Mae Piper

Dr. Ella Mae Piper
Dr. Ella Mae Piper

This episode originally aired on March 21, 2021.

Dr. Ella Mae Piper was born in Brunswick, Georgia in 1884. She attended Spelman College in Atlanta and graduated from Rohrer’s world-famous Institute of Beauty Culture in New York City as a chiropodist, or foot doctor.

After her graduation, Ella moved to Fort Myers and immediately began to change the community. She started her chiropody practice, opened the town’s first beauty shop, and became the owner of Big 4 Bottling Company where customers could get soft drinks for 5 cents a bottle. And she accomplished all of this as an African American woman during a time of strict racial segregation in Fort Myers.

In 1915, her mother Sarah Williams held the first Christmas Celebration, which immediately became tradition in the Dunbar community. When Sarah died in 1926, Dr. Piper continued the tradition with the help of churches, businesses and friends who assisted with contributions and gifts. That annual Christmas Celebration has continued to this very day.

Dr. Piper was a Grand Lodge Officer and executive board member for 26 years at the local Elks Lodge. She was the founder of the Tranquillo Temple and organized the Triple City Council, serving as Deputy of the District. She was a member of Mt. Olive Church and the Pioneer’s Club, and she assisted in building the Dunbar Community School in 1926 — the first public school for African American students in Fort Myers.

She also helped young people earn scholarships to Tuskegee College, sometimes using her own money to help some students. She also often aided the elderly, particularly those who were underprivileged or who had disabilities. At the end of her life in 1954 she left her property to the City of Fort Myers with the stipulation that it be used to provide a place for children and the elderly.

The Dr. Piper Center for Social Services was dedicated on that property in 1976, and continues its work today supporting low income seniors, and improving the lives of frail elderly, at-risk youth, and special needs children.

We learn about Dr. Ella Mae Piper, and the work done at the center named after her, by talking with its Executive Director, Nida Eluna, and a member of its Board of Directors, Shavon Chester.