Almira S. Steele, teacher and missionary, founded the South’s first African American orphanage in Chattanooga. Born of Puritan forebears in Chelsea, Massachusetts, (neighboring Boston) on July 23, 1842, the daughter of Benjamin H. and Almira Sylvester Dewing, she was reared in financial affluence and Christian training. At an early age she embraced the Abolitionist movement. After completing her education and entering teaching, she was appointed principal of an elementary school. In 1870 she married Walter Steele, businessman. His death three years later left Almira a widow with an infant daughter, Mira D. Steele. In 1880 she resigned her position, sold her home and husband’s store, and embarked upon what she believed was her life’s calling–a ministry to black children in the South.
Under the auspices of the American Missionary Association, she opened a school for the poor in Hampton County, South Carolina. The Ku Klux Klan thwarting all her efforts, Steele transferred to Chattanooga in 1881 to conduct a similar work. Shortly, she observed a larger need than education: no orphanage existed for black children, nor could she persuade public or private sectors to establish one.
In April 1884 she founded the Steele Home for Needy Children. With three infants in care, it opened within Fort Wood’s black section, on Strait and Magnolia, one block from Baroness Erlanger Hospital. The institution quickly fell into controversy; with its wards black and its proprietor and her young daughter white, it effectuated a concept that did not sit well in an era of growing racial segregation. Arsonists soon destroyed the home’s frame buildings. Steele, seven aides, and fifty-four children narrowly escaped with their lives.
Undaunted, she erected on the site a substantial three-story, brick Queen Anne building that had forty-four rooms. Over the years Steele put into the mission her lifetime’s accumulated wealth, including savings, legacies, and real estate investments. Donations from friends, strictly unsolicited, aided the Steele Home. Daughter Mira Steele also worked and sacrificed for it.
As a Congregationalist turned Seventh-day Adventist, the proprietor served her wards a vegetarian diet and held church services Saturday and Sunday. The home functioned as a school, offering what Steele described as “Christian education combined with industrial training.” Adolescent students were sent to various trade schools or colleges. Her goal was that each child should have the skills to become a self-supporting adult. She actively managed the Steele Home for forty-one years, which closed with her death at the age of eighty-three. Between 1884 and 1925 she sheltered and educated more than sixteen hundred children.
Gary C. Jenkins, “Almira S. Steele and the Steele Home for Needy Children,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 48 (1989): 29-36