By Jamon Jordan
City of Detroit Historian
The Michigan Chronicle, founded in 1936, is the longest surviving African American owned newspaper. But it is not the first. Many African American-owned newspapers have come and gone – The Michigan Citizen, the Detroit Tribune, and many others.
But all of these newspapers, including The Chronicle, owe a debt to Detroit’s first African American newspaper – the Detroit Plaindealer.
The Plaindealer, founded in 1883, was established by four prominent Black men – Benjamin & Robert Pelham Jr., William H. Anderson and Walter Stowers. The newspaper published for a decade, and like many abolitionist newspapers of the mid-1800s, did not merely report on the day’s affairs, but advocated on behalf of the Black community.
The newspaper’s office was located downtown at the corner of Shelby and State streets. Today, that corner is occupied by the Book-Cadillac Hotel. There is a historical marker on the side of the hotel where the Plaindealer’s office was located.
From 1883-1894, the Plaindealer exposed Jim Crow in the South, advocated for civil rights, heralded the rise of Black political candidates and institutions and provided a voice for the Black community in Detroit. It had a strong advertising base and an equally strong Black audience.
The group of men who came together to found the paper included Robert Pelham Jr., who was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1859. That same year, his parents – Robert Pelham Sr. and Frances Butcher Pelham – both free African Americans – left Virginia and moved north to Detroit so their children could obtain an education. Altogether, the Pelhams had seven children, who all became prominent members of Detroit’s Black community by the late 1800s.
Robert Pelham Jr. attended Everett Elementary School, where his teacher was Fannie Richards, the first Black teacher of an integrated public school in Detroit, and the pioneer of “kindergarten” in the state of Michigan. He graduated from the State Military Academy in Orchard Lake in 1877.
But even before he graduated, as a young teenager, he began working for the Detroit Daily Post, the newspaper founded by abolitionist and Radical Republican Zachariah Chandler.
His younger brother, Benjamin Pelham, born in Detroit in 1862, also was a student of Fannie Richards, and joined his older brother Robert in news. He became a messenger at the Detroit Daily Post while still a teenager. In 1879, Benjamin began editing his own publication, The Venture, which mainly published short stories and essays.
Co-founder Walter Stowers, born in slavery in 1859 Kentucky, was taken to Canada as a child with his parents – Jesse & Hester Stowers – where they escaped slavery. After graduating from Mayhew Business School in 1883, he joined the Detroit Plaindealer team.
William H. Anderson was born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1857 and came to Detroit with his parents – Richard and Mary Lott Anderson. After graduating high school in 1875, he worked for a department store and became a bookkeeper. In 1883, he joined the Pelhams and his good friend, Walter Stowers, in founding the Detroit Plaindealer.
The paper immediately focused on civil rights, both in the South and the North, including in Detroit. The paper pioneered the work of Black women journalists by publishing the activities and writings of Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching crusader. The paper also had a Black woman staff reporter, an unheard of practice at the time. She was Meta Pelham. She was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1855, the elder sister of Robert and Benjamin, and one of the few Black women journalists in Detroit and the United States. The paper supported the Afro-American League, the earliest national civil rights organization, and used the term “Afro-American” rather than “negro” or “colored.”
When the paper ended publication in 1894, all of its founders continued successful work in various careers.
Life After the Plaindealer
Robert Jr. would serve as an oil inspector for the state, a water inspector for the Detroit Water Department, and in 1892, he began working for the federal government, including 37 years in Washington DC, at the US Census Bureau, where he invented and patented a pasting device and engineered a tallying machine.
Never losing his passion for civil rights, when Pelham saw a white policeman beating a Black woman in DC, he began interviewing the other witnesses to make a case against the white officer. He was then arrested and tried and found not guilty.
He died in 1943.
His brother Benjamin, who was the sales manager for the Plaindealer, would go on to become chief accountant for Wayne County and then elected as Wayne County Auditor. By the 1930s, Pelham was the head of political machine that helped to further Republican and Black political advancement in and around Detroit.
By the time he retired in 1942, he had been called on repeatedly to steer the city and county’s finances.
He died in 1948.
Walter Stowers, went on to become one of the first two Black graduates of the Detroit College of Law. He started his own law firm and was the attorney representing African Americans in two housing discrimination cases. He later became Deputy Wayne County Sheriff and then Deputy Wayne County Clerk.
He died in 1932.
William H. Anderson, co-authored, with Stowers, “Appointed,” a fictional work about an educated African American in Detroit dealing with racism and civil rights. Anderson continued in writing and bookkeeping.
He died in 1916.
Meta Pelham would go on to be an assistant for Fannie Richards and, upon Fannie Richards’ retirement, succeeded her as a teacher at Everett School.
Meta Pelham was one of the early leaders and/or co-founders of two Black women’s clubs – the Michigan Association of Colored Women and the Detroit Study Club. She was also a prominent member of the Detroit Federation of Women’s Clubs, which was an umbrella organization for all women’s clubs – including white women’s clubs in the city.
Meta Pelham continued to urge Black women to become journalists and urge African Americans to financially back Black women journalists and fund a Black newspaper.
She died in 1941.
The Detroit Plaindealer was one of the most significant Black institutions in the late 1800s and not only paved the way for Black leaders who formed the paper and worked there, but opened doors for Black businesspeople, politicians, government service workers and civil rights leaders.
And it helped pave the way for the Michigan Chronicle.