Ask Hamilton

The Steele Home for Needy Children


Dear Hamilton,

I was walking along UTC’s campus when I saw a plaque commemorating “The Steele Home for Needy Children.” What was the Steele Home?

Sincerely,
Curious Co-ed


 Dear Curious,

Great question! That plaque pays homage to the work of Almira Steele – one of the most compassionate, brave, and progressive woman in our city’s history. A widowed teacher from Boston, Ms. Steele founded The Steele Home for Needy Children on that very site in 1884. The Steele Home welcomed all abandoned and neglected children with open arms, regardless of their race, health, age, or social status. In the following four decades, it cared for hundreds upon hundreds of infants, children, and adolescents rejected by other orphanages.

To understand just how countercultural the Steele Home was, travel with me back to the Southern U.S. in the late 19th century – a period of widespread racial violence and rampant disease. Yellow fever epidemics were sweeping the state, leaving thousands of orphaned children in their wake. On top of this, black children lived with the haunting fear of white hate groups and were excluded from practically all charitable institutions on racial grounds. 

When Steele, commissioned by the Women’s Home Missionary Association in New England, first came to our city in 1880, she had no intention of singlehandedly founding a home for underserved children. However, her work among our city’s poor exposed her to scores of children orphaned by a recent scourge of yellow fever, children who had virtually no place to turn (“except the chain-gang and the jails,” Steele later wrote). When neither the public nor the private sector could be persuaded to support the founding of an institution, Steele used her own money – her own savings, the properties and business left to her by her husband, and a life insurance policy –  to open the home in April of 1884. It opened one block from Baroness Erlanger Hospital, the site where you saw the plaque. Within three months, it had reached full capacity. 

Backlash ensued. In November of the following year, the home was burned to the ground by arsonists who were appalled by Steele’s charity towards black children. Steele, seven aids, and 54 children escaped with their lives, but the children were left homeless once again. And yet Steele would not be defeated. She once again used her own money as well as support from her friends and family in the North, to build a second, even bigger orphanage on the same site. (This first arson attempt was only the beginning of her trials. Until the day she died, Steele would face vicious criticism, arson attempts, and false charges of kidnapping and exploitation.)

In total, The Steele Home would come to support and educate more than 1,600 children in its 41 years of existence. Steele herself was an experienced teacher, and children from the home came to be known in the city for their good manners and correct language. “I desire to start the children out with good principles, good manners, and skilled hands, believing in the dignity of labor with practical economy,” wrote Steele. The children learned Scripture, English, grammar, and simple etiquette along with other practical skills. After the completion of their primary education, the boys were sent to vocational schools, while the girls remained to learn sewing, cooking, and other domestic arts.

Steele died in 1925 at the age of 83 without a penny to her name, and the building which housed the Steele Home has long since been demolished. However, her life’s work has lived on through the hundreds of children she cared for, as well as the work of Avondale SDA School, which was founded by former children of the Steele Home in 1919.

Hope this helps!
Hamilton Bush, Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, Tennessee


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The original orphanage was comprised of three frame houses used for male and female dormitories and an industrial building. Steele purchased property in the black settlement of Fort Wood on Straight (Fourth) and Palmetto Street.

 


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The new orphanage was a handsome Victorian structure wisely built of brick and stone. It contained 44 rooms and was three stories tall.

 


 

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Almira S. Steele (1842-1925), courtesy of the Chattanooga History Center

 


 

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Steele believed children were to have “plenty of fresh air, regular exercise, frequent bathing, and long nights of sleep.” Pictured here: students in class at the Steele Home’s gymnasium.

 


 

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The Steele Home did not just house children; it gave them a home to grow up in and was a place of training. Picture here: children busy at work at their dishwashing chores.

 


 

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Any young adult who desired to go to college or a vocational school was given the opportunity, with Steele paying their tuition and expenses. Some studied medicine, nursing, or entered the ministry. Steele helped at least two medical doctors, a lawyer, and a notable violinist.

 


 

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At the time, black children, and white children who were diseased, crippled, feeble-minded, or over the age of ten were not accepted into existing orphanages. All were welcomed at the Steele Home.