by Karen Turk
The Hamer family was one of the first black families to settle in Royal Oak, back in 1857. Their story starts in Kentucky, where Elizabeth (Ward) Hamer was a house slave and her husband, Henry Hamer, was a plantation slave. After six years of marriage, they were determined to escape slavery for freedom in the North. Aided by abolitionists in Ohio, the Hamers and another couple slipped into the secret passages of the Underground Railroad. The two couples slept in outbuildings and barns, traveled hidden in hay wagons, and made their way through underground tunnels. Eventually, the Hamers crossed the Detroit River and reached the safety of Windsor, Ontario.
While in Windsor, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, a son named Charles Henry. During this time, Henry had been seeking opportunity in an area north of Detroit, known then as Royal Oak Township. The small family, risking their newfound freedom, crossed back over the border to settle in a log cabin at 12 Mile and the Saginaw Trail (Woodward Ave.) The land was rented, but Henry worked diligently at the Starr Brick and Tile Factory to afford his own piece of property. He acquired seven acres in the northwest quarter of section nine from Jonathan Chase. An 1872 plat map of the township shows the Hamer family owning a triangular piece of land on Crooks Road at the foot of Webster, where Planet Fitness is currently located.
The Hamer family grew to six children: Charles Henry (1857-1942), Lucius James (1861-1935), Elmira (1862-1959), William Edgar (1864-1954), Elizabeth Ann (1867-1947), and Ella Nancy (1871-1932). Henry died of old age at eighty-three in 1899, after living in the area for forty-two years. Elizabeth died in 1913 at age ninety, having survived Henry by twenty-five years. The Hamers have a family plot in the Royal Oak Cemetery where most of the family is buried.
Adapted from the writing and research of Susan Wolfrum, Royal Oak Historical Society Museum Volunteer. Interested in learning more? Please see the following artifacts and resources in our Museum library: a letter from the Hamer’s former slaveholders, Royal Oak Twigs and Acorns, and various photos of the Hamer and Starr families in our photo database.