In 1910, only 5,741 of Detroit’s 280,000 population were black. Among them was physician James W. Ames, a graduate of both Straight University and Howard University, who had taught in New Orleans and arrived in Detroit in 1894.
He quickly assumed a leadership role within the black community and outside it. He attended a white church, joined the Masons, Odd Fellowship, and the Wolverine Lodge of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. He moved easily in all groups including whites, politicians, educated, and workers.
It was not unusual at the time for blacks to run for office. William W. Ferguson and D. Augustus Straker were elected to the Michigan legislature in 1892. Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree was up for reelection and began openly courting the support of black voters by supporting a bid by Dr. Ames for a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives. Blacks pleased at the attention became ‘rabid Pingreeites.’
The nationally famous black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose popularity crossed color lines, visited Detroit in the 1890s, and penned, ‘Vote for Pingree and Vote for Bread’:
Vote for Pingree and Vote for Bread
Come comrades, hear the record fair
That clings about the present mayor-
The man who gives us gas galore,
For two-thirds what we paid before;
Who takes out pavements rough and old
And makes them worthy to behold.
What patchers used to get from you,
You pay to have your streets made new,
For Pingree’s at the city’s head,
We’ll vote for him and vote for bread.
Ames was elected on Pingree’s coattails and served for two years. The political situation for blacks changed and he became the last black elected until the 1920s.
In 1918, Ames and a group of 30 black physicians, tired of asking white doctors for permission to admit a black patient to a white hospital, decided to form their own non-profit hospital for blacks. They named the hospital after the poet Dunbar, who had died at the height of his popularity in 1906.
Ames also served as a trustee to another black care-giving institution named after another poet, the Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Ladies. The home was founded in 1898 by Fannie Richards and Mary McCoy.
Richards, Detroit’s first black teacher, taught for 44 years at Everett School. McCoy was married to Elijah McCoy, whose inventions of railroad safety devices were so well respected they led to the term “real McCoy.” Dr. Ames’ wife served as treasurer of the home. Like Dunbar, poet Wheatley had ties to slavery. Dunbar’s parents had been slaves, and Phillis was herself a slave during the time of George Washington. The home was organized in November 1898 and accommodated 30 women.
In The Detroit News of July 15, 1900, funds were solicited for the ‘Worthy Colored Charity.’
“Old ‘Aunty’ Sparks, the Ex-Slave, Is an Interesting Character There,” the article proclaimed.
The 90-year-old Mrs. Sparks, the story said, had a strong intellect, but was very weak. “I was born in Virginny, I don’t know how many years ago, honey, and had a master named Davenport. They never showed us colored people how to read or write and they treated us like dogs.
“I was sold on the block, I remember well the day. They give me a new calico dress to make me look pretty; and the master comes up to me and says he: ‘Is you willing to go with the new master?’ And when I see the overseer, with the big long blacksnake whip, says I: ‘For sure’, master, I’m willin’ to be sold into bondage.’ I was sold for $550 and all my brothers were sold an’ we never saw each other again. They put me in chains an’ made me go through the country on foot, miles an’ miles, lookin’ for other colored people, an’ I was finally sold again to another master who abused me a good deal, an’ you can see the welts of the whip lash on my old black skin yet.”
But she had some good memories too and wanted to make her peace with the Lord. “When I was a young wench I was a great go-aroun’ an’ singin’ an’ dancin’ all the time, goin’ to parties and havin’ a grand time, but now I think of the other world, so you must excuse me for not recallin’ the old songs. This world am all a bubble, anyhow, a show place, but I’m waitin’ for the light that am to break in glory over there.”
The article continued with a short memory of the poet Wheatley, the namesake of the home. “It seemed incredible that a slave girl should have such marvelous intelligence. Phillis died while yet in the flower of her youth; but her memory is preserved in the erection of homes for the colored race.”
The home’s housekeeper Mrs Elizabeth Ann Henderson said, “I get little or no pay, in fact the ladies owe me $20 now….This is a great, good work, and deserves to be supported. The ladies here are too old to do anything. They all led respectable lives and many of them brought up children…We are very economical and our rent is only $15 a month, but we are behind and have been for some time.”
“The home is in need of money.’ the News article lamented. It asked that donations be sent to Mrs. J.W. Ames treasurer, Miss F. Richard and Mrs. Mary McCoy.
The old southern dialect style of poetry that had made Dunbar so popular eventually fell into disfavor as being out of fashion and somehow derogatory. Wheatley, who was classically educated, never used the dialect. Both poets, whose lives had many parallels, died tragically young from illness.
Some poems by Dunbar From ‘The Poet and his Song’
A son is but a little thing,
And yet what joy it is to sing!
In hours of toil it gives me zest,
And when at eve I long for rest;
When cows come home along the bars,
And in the fold I hear the bell,
As night, the Shepherd, herds his stars,
I sing my song, and all is well.
Two stanzas entitled ‘Life’ are among his most memorable:
A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,
A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,
A pint of joy to a peck of trouble,
And never a laugh but the moans come double;
And that is life.
A crust and a corner that love makes precious,
With a smile to warm and the tears to refresh us;
And joy seems sweeter when cares come after,
And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter;
And that is life.
A few lines from ‘On Imagination’ by Phillis Wheatley chosen by Edmund Clarence Stedman for his ‘Library of American Literature’:
Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who can describe the swiftness of they course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thundering God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above;
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’unbounded soul.