Robert Pelham’s story of civil and public service in the late 1800s and early 1900s is an inspirational slice of life for Black History Month.
Pelham was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1859, but his family moved to Detroit shortly after his birth. His parents sought more educational opportunities for their children than allowed by the strict literacy laws for African Americans in pre-Civil War Virginia.
Pelham began his career as a journalist, and he and his brother were founders of the Detroit Plaindealer, one of the first successful newspapers serving the Black community in the city.
Pelham moved into civil service in the late 1880s—first as an oil inspector in Michigan, then on to several national appointments.
He spent 37 years at the U.S. Census Bureau. During that time, in 1905, he invented and patented a pasting apparatus that applied adhesive to strips of paper.
Before Pelham’s pasting apparatus, a Census department clerk had to manually paste statistical slips on sheets and organize them. It was messy and required multiple employees. Pelham’s invention automated this process.
Pelham was involved in the civil rights movement and served on the leadership of a scholarly society for Black intellectuals.