Dr. Ella Mae Piper
An Enduring Legacy of Generosity and Kindness
March 8, 1884 – June 13, 1954
In the late 19th century, a new life came into this world: Dr. Ella Mae Piper. Dr. Piper was a visionary, philanthropist and life-changer, and her light would brighten the lives of many in Fort Myers.
Ella M. Jones was born in Brunswick, Ga., on March 8, 1884, the only daughter of Ned Bailer and Sarah Williams. Ella attended Spelman College in Atlanta and graduated from Rohrer’s world-famous Institute of Beauty Culture in New York City on Aug. 25, 1915. She majored in body massage and Swedish movements and became a well-known Chiropodist (foot doctor).
After her graduation, Ella came to Fort Myers and began to change our community’s history. She opened the first beauty shop in the community across from Englehart’s Mortuary on Jackson Street. Later, the shop moved to Hendry Street and she started the practice of Chiropody. In 1916, Ella once again moved her business to 1819 Evans Ave. Her entrepreneurial skills blossomed as she became owner of Big 4 Bottling Company on Mango and Evans, where customers could enjoy soft drinks for just 5 cents a bottle. Today’s Dr. Piper Center is located at the former Big 4 site.
Ella’s compassion for the community drew her and her mother to the children of Dunbar Heights. In 1915, Sarah Williams held her first Christmas Celebration, when she was employed at the H.E. Heitman home. The event became a much-anticipated tradition in the Dunbar community. When Sarah died in 1926, Ella continued the tradition her mother started, with the help of many churches, businesses and friends who assisted with contributions and gifts. The annual Christmas Celebration has grown from an original gathering of 15 girls in 1915 to a total of 600 boys and girls who now take over Dr. Piper Center’s lawn each year on December 25.
Ella’s passion for Dunbar Heights carried far beyond the Christmas party. She was a Grand Lodge Officer and executive board member for 26 years at the local Elks Lodge. She also served as a state officer. 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. She assisted in building the Dunbar Community School in 1926, now an adult education and lifelong learning center.
Philanthropic to the core, Dr. Piper was instrumental in helping young people earn scholarships to Tuskegee College, using her personal money to help some of the students. Ella often aided the elderly, particularly those who were underprivileged or who had disabilities. Her love for the community motivated Ella to leave her property to the City of Fort Myers with the stipulation it be used to provide a place for children and the elderly. Although Dr. Piper died in 1954, her legacy lives on at the Dr. Piper Center, which was dedicated in June, 1976. Today, the Dr. Piper Center empowers seniors to create community impact in her name.
Click to view a timeline of Black History in Lee County from 1800 to modern times, including contributions by Dr. Ella Mae Piper.
Click to view 2021 Fox4 coverage of Black History Month with Dr. Ella Mae Piper.
Click to view 2019 Fox4 coverage of Black History Month with Dr. Ella Mae Piper.
Click to read News-Press story on the 130th anniversary of Dr. Ella Mae Piper’s birth.