Almira S. Steele, educator and philanthropist, was founder of the Steele Home for Needy Children, regarded as the South’s first orphanage for African Americans.1
Early Life and Work
Almira Sylvester Dewing was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on July 23, 1842, the first of six children born to Benjamin Hill Dewing and Almira Louisa Sylvester Dewing.2 Her prosperous father was president of the Boston, Lynn and Swampscott Railroad and served as the town treasurer and treasurer of the Congregational parish for several years.3 Almira completed her education at Massachusetts State Normal School and did some post-graduate work before entering teaching. She was appointed principal of the Beachmont Elementary School in Chelsea. On July 26, 1869, at age 27, she married businessman and Civil War veteran Walter Steele, also 27,4 owner of a department store in Deer Park, Maryland, where he also served as postmaster. Walter died three years later leaving Almira a widow with an eight-month-old infant daughter named Almira D. Steele (usually called Mira). Almira sold her husband’s store and returned to Chelsea, serving as principal of another school.5
In 1880, Mrs. Steele resigned her position at the school in Chelsea to go to the South to do educational work for black children, whose opportunities for public education were greatly limited in the post-Reconstruction era. Sponsored by the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Congregationalist Church, Steele opened a school in Hampton County, South Carolina. However, “the Ku klux spirit was so strong against her work there” that after a year her sponsors transferred her to Chattanooga, Tennessee.6
The Steele Home for Needy Children
In Chattanooga, Mrs. Steele taught in the mornings and visited the jails, poor-houses and hospitals in the evenings. Chattanooga was recovering from an epidemic of yellow fever which had left many children homeless. The city’s Vine Street Orphanage only accepted white children, and among them only those considered adoptable, and thus excluded the diseased, crippled, “feeble-minded,” and those over the age of 10. No institution provided help to destitute black children who often ended up on the streets as thieves or beggars. Steele sought support from the American Missionary Society, an interdenominational organization dedicated to black education in the post-Civil War South, but no funds were available for an orphanage project.7 She also appealed to the city and county officials without success. She later described the situation she faced, and her response:
I came south to found a school . . . and I came to Chattanooga in missionary work. I constantly saw destitute colored orphans compelled to beg or steal. I saw no home or shelter provided by law or religion to rescue the precious souls of these helpless blacks. I was told there could be none established: that the people would not be taxed to support an institution for them. . . .
I prayed for light and it came. I saw that I had been deceiving myself. I wanted an orphanage, but I wanted somebody else to build it. I said to myself, build it yourself. You have money saved from teaching; you have your husband's life insurance; you have your pension. Then I turned to my little daughter and I said, Darling, we will trust the Lord for our future and we will use our money to make a home for these little waifs.8
The Steele Home for Needy Children opened on April 26, 1884, with three small girls and as word spread it was soon filled to capacity. From the very beginning the white citizens of Chattanooga looked with suspicion and distrust on her orphanage. A white proprietor and her white daughter mothering black children was a concept that was unacceptable in an era of growing racial tensions. Mrs. Steele had built three wooden buildings—one for the boys, one for the girls and an industrial building. After 18 months of operation, during Thanksgiving week in November 1885, arsonists burned down the wood frame buildings. Fortunately, all seven workers and 54 children made it out alive, albeit barely.9
The 42-year-old widow did not become discouraged but pressed ahead with raising funds for a new building. Insurance on the old buildings amounting to $2,500, along with $6,000 provided by two Chattanooga businessmen and donations from other friends made possible completion of a substantial three-story, brick Queen Anne building with 44 rooms by May 1886.10 On the day of the cornerstone laying ceremony, the Masonic Lodge “and various colored lodges and organizations of the city” paraded in the streets and several outstanding Chattanooga dignitaries praised the good work done by Mrs. Steele.11
Neither Mrs. Steele nor her daughter, Mira Steele Printz, ever received a salary for their sacrificial work with the orphanage. Nor did they engage in fund-raising appeals. Donations came in unsolicited as people learned of the good work they were doing and as Mrs. Steele told her story at churches and camp meetings, often taking several of her children with her to tell their captivating stories. Mrs. Steele also drew on her own estate, built up by her husband’s bequest and later a substantial legacy from her father and funds from two aunts.12
The Adventist Connection
A fervent Christian, Mrs. Steele had been a Congregationalist throughout her life but near the end of 1894, apparently while receiving treatment at Battle Creek Sanitarium, she became “convinced that there was no authority in the Bible for a change of the Sabbath day” and thus accepted the Seventh-day Adventist understanding.13
Steele adopted many of the health practices she was taught by Dr. Kellogg at Battle Creek and served her children two vegetarian meals a day, breakfast and supper. She held church services on Sundays and now on Saturdays also. She was charged several times with starving the children because she only fed them two meals and no meat but objective investigators found the children to be healthy and happy. In a court case her lawyer included an affidavit from Dr. John H. Kellogg affirming the healthfulness of the two-meal-a-day diet, and the charges finally were dropped.14
A Broad Humanitarian Work
The orphanage in Chattanooga functioned as a home and school, offering what Steele described as “Christian education combined with industrial training.”15 She not only took in black children but poor white children that other orphanages refused to take. When her children reached adolescence, she sent them to various trade schools or colleges. Her goal was that each child should have the skills to become a self-supporting adult.
From her base in Chattanooga, Mrs. Steele also conducted and funded a broader humanitarian and educational work throughout the South. Not intimidated by the opposition that prompted her move to Chattanooga in 1880, she persisted in planting schools for black children in South Carolina. Despite the fact that the school she launched in Hampton County was burned by opponents in 1894, she ended up establishing at least 11 schools throughout the state, including the Steele High School in McNeil. Mrs. Steele’s efforts in South Carolina also included helping Elizabeth Evelyn Wright and Jessie Dorsey (Green) establish an industrial school in the town of Denmark in 1897 known today as Voorhees University. Steele also founded a school in Maryland, three in Alabama, and the Leonard Street Home for Colored Girls in Atlanta, Georgia.16 All of this in the face of persistent, violent persecution from those adamantly opposed to her goals of providing black young people with equal opportunity for education and societal advancement. Including the three buildings in Chattanooga burned down in 1884, a total of 11 buildings connected with her various humanitarian enterprises in the South were destroyed by fire.17
She actively managed the Steele Home for 41 years, which closed with her death, June 6, 1925, at Battle Creek Sanitarium at the age of 83. Between 1884 and 1925 she sheltered and educated more than 1,600 children.18 Some of her children became medical doctors, lawyers, musicians, teachers and other professionals. Most trained in the Booker T. Washington model and became carpenters, barbers, mechanics, tailors, plumbers and other tradesmen.19
An historical marker has been placed on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus at the site where the Steele Home once stood. The memorial plaque reads:
The Steele Home for Needy Children—1884-1925. In post-Reconstruction Chattanooga, no orphanage existed for black children. Almira S. Steele, a white teacher from Boston, met the need by founding the Steele Home for Needy Children on this site. Mrs. Steele suffered persecution ranging from slander to fire. However her philanthropic mission endured. Over 1600 children were aided, educated, and sheltered. Many were saved from the streets and became productive citizens. The home closed shortly after the death of Almira Steele in 1925.20
Her legacy and life's work has lived on through the children she watched over.21 Edward Mattox II points out that Mrs. Steele sought to spread Adventism beyond the walls of the orphanage. In 1897, for example, the outstanding black evangelist, Lewis C. Sheafe, in response to an invitation from Mrs. Steele, spent about six weeks evangelizing in Chattanooga.22 He described his experience in a letter published in the Review.
I have been in this city nearly two weeks, preaching every night. The people are hungry for the truth, and the Lord has led many in this city into the light, having no other teacher than the Holy Spirit. It is wonderful to hear how clear many of them are on the truth, not knowing the letter of the Book, but actually taught of God. My summer’s experience has been rich in lessons of faith and trust, and the Lord has honored and blessed His word. Sundays I spend among the churches and Sunday-schools. They invite me to preach. I always accept, and the Lord adds His Blessings.23
In 1919, former children (then adults with children) of the Steele Home for Needy Colored Children along with several new families established the first black Seventh-day Adventist Church in Chattanooga on Cross Street. Along with the church, they also started the first and only black Adventist church school in Chattanooga. After 22 years, the Cross Street Seventh-day Adventist Church members moved to East Eighth Street where church membership and school enrollment continued to grow. By 1968, under the pastoral leadership of Dr. Patrick E. Vincent, the school was moved to a separate location in the Avondale district of Chattanooga where it now resides as the Avondale SDA School.24
Castle, Myrta B. “For Humanity’s Sake.” ARH, May 26, 1896.
C[lough], C[arolina] L[Louise]. “Leaving Behind an Enviable Record.” Life Boat, August 1925.
Hubbard, Rita. African Americans of Chattanooga: A History of Unsung Heroes. The History Press, 2007.
“Items of Interest.” ARH, May 21, 1895.
Jenkins, Gary C. “Almira S. Steele.” Tennessee Encyclopedia, March 18, 2018. Accessed June 20, 2022. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/almira-s-steele/.
Jenkins, Gary C. “Almira S. Steele and the Steele Home for Needy Children.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 48, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 29-36.
Jenkins, Gary C. “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” ARH, May 23, 1985.
“Mrs. Steele and Her Orphanage.” Chattanooga News, April 27, 1909.
Mattox, Edward II. Before The Morning Star: The Almira S. Steele Story, Missionary Teacher to All God’s Children. EME Christian Publishers, 2008.
“Remarkable Institution.” Chattanooga Times, January 23, 1898.
“The Steele Orphanage.” Chattanooga Commercial, May 4, 1886.
Steele, A.S. “The Steele Home.” Christian Educator, September-October 1897.
Gary C. Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele,” Tennessee Encyclopedia, March 18, 2018, accessed June 20, 2022, https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/almira-s-steele/.↩
“Benjamin Hill Dewing,” Ancestry, accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/family-tree/person/tree/3532909/person/-1717316422/facts. Benjamin H. Dewing also had two children with his first wife, Louisa Jackson Dewey, who died in 1840.↩
“Mrs. Steele and Her Orphanage,” Chattanooga News, April 27, 1909, 3.↩
Almira S. Dewing, 1869, in “Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001,” accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QG1K-4HN4.↩
Gary C. Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele and the Steele Home for Needy Children,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 48, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 29, 31.↩
Myrta B. Castle, “For Humanity’s Sake,” ARH, May 26, 1896, 5; A.S. Steele, “The Steele Home,” Christian Educator, September-October 1897, 51-52.↩
Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele and the Steele Home,” 31; Steele, “The Steele Home,” 51.↩
“Remarkable Institution,” Chattanooga Times, January 23, 1898, 9.↩
Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele and the Steele Home,” 31.↩
A.S. Steele, “The Steele Home,” 52.↩
“The Steele Orphanage,” Chattanooga Commercial, May 4, 1886, 3.↩
Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele and the Steele Home,” 31.↩
Myrta B. Castle’s article, “For Humanity’s Sake,” based on a personal interview with Almira Steele and published in the Review, indicates that Steele became convinced of the seventh-day Sabbath 18 months before, which would have been November 1894. A brief news note in “Items of Interest,” ARH, May 21, 1895, 16, corroborates this by stating that Mrs. Steele had accepted “the Sabbath truth” during the “past few months.”↩
Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele and the Steele Home,” 33-34.↩
Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele,” Tennessee Encyclopedia.↩
J. F. B. Coleman, Tuskegee to Voorhees (Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1922), 24-34; A.S. Steele, “The Steele Home,” 52; Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele and the Steele Home,” 33; DeWitt S. Williams, “Green, Jessie Catherine Dorsey (1874–1971),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, May 22, 2021, accessed June 17, 2022. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=BG6V.↩
C[arolina] L[Louise] C[lough], “Leaving Behind an Enviable Record,” Life Boat, August 1925, 245.↩
Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele,” Tennessee Encyclopedia. Edward Mattox II claims that Mrs. Steele graduated over 1800 individuals in Before The Morning Star: The Almira S. Steele Story, Missionary Teacher to All God’s Children (EME Christian Publishers, 2008), 133.↩
Mattox, Before The Morning Star; “Remarkable Institution”; Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele and the Steele Home,” 31.↩
Rita Hubbard, African Americans of Chattanooga: A History of Unsung Heroes (The History Press, 2007), 27–31.↩
Gary C. Jenkins, “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Give Up,” ARH, May 23, 1985, 12-13. See also Mattox’s Before the Morning Star, which draws on first-hand knowledge from his mother, Anna Farmer Mattox, who was taken into the Steele Orphanage at age eight, and her sister, Ethel Farmer Watkins, who entered at age 13.↩
Mattox, Before the Morning Star, 153-154.↩
“A Letter,” ARH, November 2, 1897, 13.↩