Politician, newspaper publisher
Alifelong Republican, lawyer, political organizer, and expert on Detroit's Wayne County government administration, Benjamin Pelham founded the first black political machine in Detroit, Michigan. He was an astute politician who influenced Detroit politics, and he was one of the founders of the influential Midwest black daily newspaper, the Plain Dealer. Benjamin Pelham also held a number of patents for automation of manual procedures.
Benjamin Pelham was the youngest of six children born to Robert Pelham, a plasterer and mason, and Frances Butcher. His father's profession as a plasterer and mason allowed his family a comfortable life. The Pelhams were free blacks, and they owned a farm in Virginia but decided to sell it when they were told by the local authority that only whites or slaves could purchase a dog license. After this incident and additional prejudice, Robert Pelham decided to move further north, taking his family to Columbus, Ohio, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Pelhams eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan, where Benjamin was born on February 7, 1862.
In Detroit, young Pelham attended public schools and took accounting courses at a local business college. He began his career in journalism as a newsboy for the Detroit Post while he was still in high school. Later the Detroit Post was renamed the Post-Tribune, and it soon garnered the reputation as Michigan's foremost Republican daily. While a newsboy Pelham learned the mechanics of typesetting, which led to his having a position as apprentice typesetter for the Post-Tribune when he grad-uated from Detroit High School. In 1883, Benjamin and his older brother, Robert Jr., started the Plain Dealer. W. H. Anderson and W. H. Stowers worked with the Pelham brothers on the publication. With offices in the Post-Tribune building, the team along with a staff of five published the newspaper. Robert Jr. and Benjamin continued to work as typesetters as they published the newspaper.
The Plain Dealer was a successful, widely read publication which became a leading African American newspaper in the United States. Many of the articles were written by well-known blacks. It supported black pride and was a harbinger for the concerns of African Americans living in the Midwest, using the term African American in place of Negro. As with most newspapers, politics was an important subject. The paper offered a Midwestern, African American view on the subject. As the managing editor, Benjamin Pelham became one of the most recognized black Detroit figures of the period. By 1884, his influence was such that he managed a successful campaign to elect a black man as an at-large delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago. In 1889 the first nationwide civil rights organization, the Afro-American League, was started by Pelham. However, his newspaper, the Plain Dealer, ceased publication in 1894, a result of financial loss.
Enters Public Service
The end of the Plain Dealer did not affect Benjamin Pelham's success. He was appointed to serve as clerk in the Internal Revenue Service by James H. Stone, a former owner of the Post-Tribune. Pelham began to work at the office of the registrar of deeds in Detroit in 1900 and remained there until 1906. Charles Buhrer, another associate of the Post-Tribune, appointed Pelham to the highest non-elective office in the county government, chief accountant of the board of supervisors of Wayne County. Later he was elected to be the auditor of Wayne County. Soon Pelham was recognized as an expert on Wayne County government administration, and he was asked to serve, at the same time, as chief accountant and clerk to the board of auditors, Detroit's governing body. He set the agenda for the board.
Although he was a busy man, Pelham found the time to form a black political machine by fostering a reputation as a smart politician. His organization became a governing, powerful agent in the politics of Wayne County. Pelham's influence grew to the point where he could affect political careers in Wayne County. A diverse community composed of newly arrived Europeans reduced his power, though, and broke his well-organized black political organization. Nonetheless, Pelham continued to work in city government and with the county even after a Democrat was elected to office in 1934. He retired as county accountant in 1942, after forty-seven years of continual public service.
During the early years of the twentieth century, Pelham became an inventor. He created a device to automate the pasting process of statistical sheets. He devised a method for automating the pasting process and set out to create a device that could accomplish it. Starting with a rolling pin, cigar boxes, wooden screws, and other miscellaneous items, Pelham developed a working model. The apparatus would go on to save the department more than $3,000. He patented two items—the tabulation device in 1905 and a tallying machine in 1913. After retiring from the Census Bureau, Pelham edited a black newspaper called the Washington Tribune and later created the Capital News Services, a news agency devoted to black issues.
Benjamin Pelham and Laura Montgomery of Sandwich, Ontario, married in 1895; they had two children-Frances and Alfred M. On October 7, 1948, Pelham died in Detroit leaving behind him a list of accomplishments.
- Born in Detroit, Michigan on February 7
- Joins brother Robert and two associates in founding Plain Dealer
- Successfully manages campaign to place an African American as an at-large delegate to the Republican National Convention
- Appointed clerk in Internal Revenue Service
- Marries Laura Montgomery
- Holds position in Office of the Registrar of Deeds
- Patents the tabulation device
- Named chief accountant, board of supervisors, the highest non-elected office in Wayne County
- Patents the tallying machine
- Becomes editor of Washington Tribune; creates Capital News Services
- Dies in Detroit, Michigan on October 7
McCain, Rea, Aris A. Mallas, and Margaret K. Hedden. Forty Years in Politics: The Story of Benjamin Pelham. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1958.
Nepa, Frances. "Benjamin R. Pelham." In American National Biography. Vol. 17. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Plain Dealer. http://www.living-library.com/FreedomTour/Plaindealer.html (Accessed 20 January 2006).
Mario A. Charles