One of the greatest bridge-builders in Michigan history was a black man, Fred B. Pelham. February, as Black History month, is a good time to remember Pelham and to tell a story of black family entrepreneurship in Michigan.
Fred Pelham's story starts with his parents, Robert and Frances Pelham, who, as free blacks, left Virginia in the 1850s for greater opportunities in the free state of Michigan. According to Reginald Larrie, an instructor at Wayne County Community College, Robert Pelham was an accomplished mason and builder and taught his skills to his son Fred.
Fred was a quick learner and a diligent student. He entered the University of Michigan and mastered the difficult mathematics needed to excel in civil engineering. His grades were superior; he impressed his classmates; and he graduated as president of his class in 1887.
After graduating, Pelham became an assistant civil engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad. His craftsmanship won him recognition, and he helped design and build about twenty bridges throughout Michigan. These bridges, according to Professor Larrie, were noted for their strength and architectural form.
In following this career path, Pelham was paralleling the course of action suggested by Booker T. Washington, who was America's greatest black leader of the late 1800s, and the president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington argued that education was the key for blacks to building a firm economic foundation. Self-help and excellence in work, Washington believed, were two cornerstones of future success for blacks in America. Black citizens need to "gain knowledge, experience and wealth within our own ranks," Washington said. "We should not permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities."
Fred Pelham's brothers, Robert, Jr. and Benjamin, could not have agreed more. Robert attended a special typesetting school and mastered that trade; Benjamin went to business college and learned how to make a profit. Together they combined their skills and started a newspaper, The Plaindealer. Robert worked the typesetting machines and Benjamin worked on sales.
The Plaindealer became a widely quoted newspaper and a source of information to blacks throughout Michigan. The Pelhams used their editorial influence to argue that "the black man must make his own way by education and intelligence." Seize opportunities, they urged black Americans, and excel on the job.
Fred, meanwhile, became a role model for all Michiganians as he practiced his engineering skills in Michigan. His "skew arch" bridge, which he built in Dexter, Michigan, is unique, structurally sound, and still standing. During its construction, says Professor Larrie, local residents were astonished at the strength of the bridge and the perfect fit of the stones that Pelham had carved and used. Unfortunately, this highly creative innovator died after a brief sickness in 1895 at age 37.
The Michigan Central Railroad, like other railroads in the nation, had to be competitive to survive. Hiring creative blacks like Fred Pelham gave the Michigan Central a competitive edge. Booker T. Washington studied situations like this and observed that "more and more thoughtful students of the race problem are beginning to see that business and industry constitute what we may call the strategic points in its solution."
What Washington and the Pelham brothers saw clearly was that education, self-help, and entrepreneurship were vital ingredients in lifting black citizens out of the poverty and shame of slavery. They did not ask for special privileges or quotas. They wanted blacks, through education, inventions, and skilled work, to be beacons for America that would shine brightly and compel racists everywhere to change their hearts by the sheer persuasive power of example.
In 1915, Michigan Governor Woodbridge Ferris endorsed the Freedmen's Progress Exposition to honor black accomplishment. A report that Governor Ferris sponsored stated, "In the field of invention, Michigan Negroes have not only kept abreast of the general advancement of the race . . . , but have set the pace."
Fred Pelham and his brothers helped set that pace and in the process, they set an example of black entrepreneurship that ought to be as inspiring today as it was a hundred years ago.