The National Business League

Founded by Dr. Booker T. Washington – August 23, 1900


Robert Pelham, Jr.

Robert Pelham, Jr.

Pasting apparatus

Robert Pelham, Jr. 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. He used the publication to amplify the voices of leading African American civil rights leaders, and continued to be involved in the civil rights movement throughout his life.

Pelham moved into civil service in the late 1880s – first as an oil inspector in Michigan, then on to several national appointments. He spent nearly three decades 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. He later invented a tallying machine in 1913, and authored a report that used census data to show evidence of the Great Migration, a mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to cities in the North and West. 

As part of a burgeoning Black middle-class in the nation’s capital around the turn of the twentieth century, Pelham strove for excellence in both his work and his community. He served on the leadership committee for the American Negro Academy, a scholarly society for Black intellectuals, and managed the Washington Tribune, a D.C.-based Black newspaper, later in his career.