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Remembering Dr. Ella Mae Piper: A century later, her legacy lives on

Posted at 12:54 AM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-09 01:17:23-05

FORT MYERS, Fla.  — An extraordinary legacy of generosity and kindness lives on more than a century later. Dr. Ella Piper helped shape Southwest Florida, and today that same community she helped build continues to carry on her mission.

“I think about it being 2021 and all the strides that all women and women of color have made, and still the things that Dr. Piper did stand the test of time,” said Shavon Chester, Board Member at The Dr. Ella Piper Center.

Born in 1884, Ella Jones would grow up to become Dr. Ella Mae Piper, after her humble beginnings in a small town in Georgia. Dr. Piper attended Spellman College, an all-girls Historically Black College or University. After graduating in 1915 Dr. Piper began her journey of shaping this great community we now know as Fort Myers, Florida.

“Dr. Piper was an entrepreneur, she had a beauty shop, she was a podiatrist, and right here on the grounds of the Dr. Piper Center stood her bottling company. She was friends with Myra Edison, and Bern Davis and that philanthropic spirit ran through her and her mom Sarah Williams. They gave back to the community, children, and people with disabilities. I can’t imagine being a woman of color, during that time and accomplishing all the things that Dr. piper did, she truly was a revolutionary not just for her time but our time today,” said Chester.

As a humanitarian Dr. Piper relentlessly gave back during her time. Now 106 years later her contributions continue with the Dunbar Community Christmas Day Celebration.

“She and her mom Sarah Williams took it upon themselves to not only make a Christmas day meal but buy gifts for all the children in the neighborhood. So year after year kids would show up on their front lawn and they would hand out gifts. That tradition stands up today, we just had our 106th Christmas celebration. That legacy of Dr. Piper stands up today, and it's our jobs as stewards of her legacy to continue those traditions,” said Chester.

In 1954 Dr. Piper passed away and she gave her land to the City of Fort Myers under the condition that it be used to help seniors and children in our community. Today the city continues to hold up its end of the bargain with the Dr. Ella Piper Center proudly sitting on the corner of Dr. Ella Piper Way.

“In 1975 a group of concerned citizens approached the city council and asked them if they can use Dr. Ella Piper's building for intergenerational programs for seniors and children in the community,” said Nina Eluna, Executive Director, Dr. Piper Center.

Nearly 50 years later, the Dr. Piper Center continues to carry out the visions Dr. Ella Piper left for the Fort Myers and surrounding communities. Serving as Executive Director for nearly 30 years Nida Eluna says she has an obligation to help seniors and children in our community.

“Today we have 4 major programs and in April we are so blessed we will have 5 major programs, the senior companion program, and the foster grandparent program. We have the senior implement program where low-income seniors are trained, computer trained to build their resume to help them be more employable and help them build their skills. The RSVP is a Retired Senior Volunteer Program and it will provide volunteer opportunities for seniors to help out other agencies like the food bank and Habitat for Humanity. The 5th in an action program that we currently have provides transportation to frail elderly seniors and they don’t have to be low income,” said Eluna.

The legacy of Dr. Ella Piper not only lives on through her center but the entire Fort Myers community, including the Luminary Hotel who went the extra mile to pay their respects to a true visionary.

“So, when we were developing the concept, one of the things, we wanted was a connection to the community and so naturally we started to do some research on Fort Myers and the beginnings, and what made Fort Myers, Fort Myers. Of course, you go back in time and you find Ford and Edison but it was really the people like Dr. Piper that had a connection to the community. If you read her stories and look back at her beginnings, she had a beauty shop in a community where white people wouldn’t go, but they went, and she was able to go places that typically black people couldn’t go. She opened doors; she was a trailblazer she was an innovator,” said Steve Adams, Director of Food and Beverage at the Luminary Hotel.

Adams says when the Luminary builds a new property, they can make a beautiful facade, add nice furniture, but you can't give a building soul until you make that connection with the community.

“We found out very early that we wanted to be associated with that. For me just to go back and see the history of it and then to find out there is a foundation and it’s true to what she wanted it to be. It helps minorities, underprivileged children, it helps the needy, the aging, and that's why it's very important for us to be a part of it,” said Adams.