Royal Oak is known as a city with a thriving downtown, filled with dining, retail, and entertainment options. But it also boasts 51 parks within its nearly 12 square miles, parks named after roads, civic groups, and prominent members of the community.
In March 2022, the city renamed Beechwood Park, located on the east side of Crooks Road just north of 12 Mile Road, as Hamer Finch Wilkins Park. The park’s new moniker honors one of the first Black families in Royal Oak Township and offers a glimpse into the history of a pioneering family dating back more than 160 years.
Adding the new name is also a testament to the importance of bringing hidden stories to light. Thanks to a descendant, LaKeesha Morrison, the Hamer family’s achievements are becoming more widely acknowledged.
In 2020, when she really started looking at Royal Oak’s parks, “not one was named after a Black family, and such an important family,” Morrison says. “I was like, ‘Hey, why can’t we get a street or even a park?’ And it snowballed from there.”
The family story begins with Henry Hamer (born in 1816) and his wife, Elizabeth (b. 1824). Born into chattel slavery and given their owners’ last names, they began their lives as Gilbert Robinson and Betty Ward.
Eventually they were sold to Henry Bruce Jr. in Covington, Kentucky, a city on the southern banks of the Ohio River and a major hub of Underground Railroad activity. The couple were educated and literate; Gilbert was a courier, while Betty was a “house slave,” tending to her owner’s children.
In August of 1856, Gilbert and Betty, who was pregnant, escaped captivity by crossing the Ohio River to Cincinnati. They headed north via the Underground Railroad, eventually ending up in Windsor, Ontario, where their son Charles was born on March 11, 1857.
Shortly after their escape, they changed their last names, lest they be apprehended. Gilbert Robinson and Elizabeth Ward became Henry and Elizabeth Hamer. They would live with these names for the rest of their lives.
Once safely in Canada, the couple met a sympathetic woman who provided shelter and cared for Elizabeth as she neared her due date. The Canadian economy was very poor, and Henry visited Detroit to ascertain whether the city might be a suitable destination for the small family.
Michigan was relatively welcoming to Black people; the state’s 1837 constitution banned slavery, and the Personal Liberty Act of 1855 made it harder for formerly enslaved people to be captured and returned to their enslavers.
Concerned that the family’s presence in a large city, Detroit, might alert bounty hunters to them, Henry chose Royal Oak, a rural farming community about 15 miles north of Detroit, as their future home. The 1854 census lists 26 Black families in Royal Oak Township, so Henry may have found a place where they could spend their lives in relative safety.
Within a few years, the family made their way to Royal Oak, where Henry found work. When they first arrived, they lived in the area known as Chase’s Corners, what is now 13 Mile Road and Crooks Road, which was the hub of the community. It is also where the Almon Starr farm was located.
At that time, the Starrs, a name well known to present-day Royal Oak residents, were already an established family. They owned at least three farms and had started some of the first businesses in Royal Oak Township. Through hard work and thrift, Henry and Elizabeth were able to purchase about 6 acres of land in 1865, located on Crooks Road a quarter-mile south of the Starrs’ farm. The Hamers started a farm of their own.
Growing up in Royal Oak in the 1980s and ’90s, LaKeesha Morrison, the Hamers’ great-great- great-granddaughter, knew some of this. Her father, Keith Wilkins, made sure his children understood Black history. He told them that their ancestors were among the first Black people in Royal Oak to own property and their children and their children’s children were important members of the community, which was mostly white.
“I always knew how important my family was and the contributions they’ve given to Royal Oak,” she says.
But once she and her father started digging for the family history during the COVID-19 pandemic, more came to light.
Two years ago, the search led to the Royal Oak Historical Society and a researcher there named Don Drife. He “dug up more information,” Morrison says, including the possibility that the Hamers left a child or children behind when they fled Kentucky and that Elizabeth worked as a midwife in Royal Oak.
Drife also discovered a letter from Henry Bruce Jr.’s teenage daughter Pauline. It seems to be in response to a letter from Elizabeth, perhaps to inform her former owners that she and her husband had arrived safely in Canada.
Pauline describes the love that the family’s children had for “Bettie,” and she wonders, “How did you manage to get off without letting any of us know anything about. I think you might of said good bye to little Nelly who loved you so devotedly.”
Morrison theorizes Elizabeth wrote to the family as a way to find out information about their child(ren) and that they returned to Covington after the Civil War, perhaps to look for them.
In Royal Oak, the Hamer family eventually grew to eight, with Charles, (b. 1857 in Ontario) and five more children born during and just after the Civil War: Lucius (b. 1861), Elmira (b. 1862), William (b. 1864), Elizabeth (b. 1867), and Ella (b. 1871). U.S. Census reports from 1860 to the 1900s document the growing family through the generations.
Henry, who died in 1899, lived the rest of his life as a farmer, though he worked for the Starrs as a tile-maker. The sons’ occupations in the early days were also listed as “farmer.”
Daughter Elmira married Matthew Finch, a Civil War veteran, in 1885. She outlived all her siblings, reaching the age of 96 before passing in 1959. One of Elmira and Matthew’s six children was Bessie Finch (b. 1893); she married Harold Wilkins in 1921, taking his name and thus cementing the three family names that would one day adorn the sign at the park in what is now a city of approximately 58,000 residents.
Through the middle of the 20th century, the Hamers were well known throughout the rapidly growing city as one of Royal Oak’s pioneer families. Their birthday celebrations, marriages, or death announcements were front-page news in The Daily Tribune, the local newspaper.
In her later years, Elmira was a bit of a local celebrity. An article from the Aug. 29, 1957, issue of The Tribune, under the headline “Civil War Babies Mark Birthdays,” recounts Elmira’s 95th birthday, celebrated right alongside Ella Starr’s 93rd birthday. The two had lived their entire lives as friends and neighbors.
Of this first generation born and raised in Royal Oak, many would live to an old age, either on the family homestead or in the nearby area. The Hamers and Starrs remained close for a long time, with Hamer kids playing with their neighbors the Starr kids. Hamer descendants are arguably the longest-living landowners in Royal Oak.
All that remains of the original 6-acre parcel of land Henry and Elizabeth purchased are the 0.3 acres on Crooks Road. Condominiums and houses to the north, apartments to the east, and a Planet Fitness now occupy the rest of the land that was once the Hamer farm. But not all is lost: Hamer descendants still own this portion of the original homestead, just a half-mile north of the city park that now bears the family names.
More than five generations lived in the various Crooks Road residences; many of them are buried nearby in the family plot in Oakview Cemetery at 12 Mile Road and Main Street. As the result of Drife’s research, the National Park Service placed their graves on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, one of over 740 locations in 39 states.
Sadly, Morrison’s father did not live to see the creation of Hamer Finch Wilkins Park in 2022, but his daughter made sure his surname was on the sign.
Thanks to private donations and a $50,000 grant from Oakland County Parks and Recreation, work has been ongoing to transform the park, which originally opened in 1956, into a welcoming place to gather and reflect. Six trees have been planted, one for each of the Hamer children, and a bust of Elizabeth Hamer is currently being created by Detroit artist Austen Brantley (see sidebar); it is tentatively scheduled to be unveiled this spring.
“She’s definitely the face of our family,” says Morrison, who has visited the Kentucky location that her ancestors escaped from, walking in their footsteps to understand and honor the path they took.
“As you get older and you’re losing family members, someone has to continue the story,” Morrison explains. “I may still be young, but I’m 100% dedicated to making sure the right story is told, and our story is nothing but powerful. It’s about success.”
This story is from the February 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.