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The Steele Home Archaeological Project

The Steele Home for Needy Children was founded by Mrs. Almira Steele, a recent arrival from Boston to Chattanooga, in 1884. The Steele Home was founded near the intersection of Palmetto Street and Forest Street, an area that today lies within the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). The Steele Home was historically unique in that it was the only orphanage in the area who would give provisions to children who were Black, over the age of ten, disabled, or diseased. Another unique aspect of the Steele Home is that it doubled as both an orphanage and a school. In her own words, Almira is quoted saying, “I desire to start the children out with good principles, good manners, skilled hands, and believing in the dignity of labor.” Between 1884 and 1925, the Steele Home served over 1600 children. However, since Almira was White, this also made the Steele Home extremely controversial among Black and White citizens of Chattanooga. Only 18 months after she opened the orphanage, arsonists had burnt down the original wooden buildings on her property. Undaunted, she built an even larger stone and brick building to take its place.

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 The original Steele Home (top) and a larger building (bottom) constructed as the main residence after the original structure was razed. Photos courtesy of the Adventist Heritage (Jenkins 1986).

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Details of the 1889 (left) and 1901 (right) Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps showing the building footprints over time. 

The building has long since been demolished and the site has transformed over time from a flat grassy field to a gravel parking lot for commuters on campus. UT Capital Projects, which is the University of Tennessee department responsible for development projects across all its campuses, is currently planning to build a new Medical Sciences building on the site. Before beginning this project, they asked for assistance from the Laboratory of Environmental Archaeology (LEA) at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, to help record and minimize damage to any historical features on the site. Dr. Alison Damick from the LEA partnered with Dr. Brooke Persons from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga for this project, and they have initiated a collaboration with the Bessie Smith Center to continue the work and involve the wider community in future onsite archaeological research.

Archaeological testing so far has included ground penetrating radar (GPR), which is a remote sensing tool to identify buried features, and hand-augering to describe buried deposits and identify the presence of artifacts in the area that may be associated with the historic use of the Steele Home. The GPS results indicate that the foundation of the Steele Home is intact below the surface of the parking lot, and hand auger samples returned mid-to-late 19th and early 20th architectural artifacts. These included construction materials like brick, mortar, glass, nails, and cut stone. Archaeologists have interpreted these remains as likely architectural remnants of the Steele Home and other residential structures that once existed within the property in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Having identified that significant archaeological resources remains preserved in the vicinity of the former Steele Home, the research team is now planning for future research that will shed light on an important era of Chattanooga’s history that has historically been understudied.

 

This project offers great potential to explore a culturally significant part of Chattanooga that is directly associated with a unique and compelling history. We hope we can better incorporate the story of the Steele Home into the preservation of the broader historically Black landscape of Chattanooga. We are looking to involve the Chattanooga Community in this process to conduct informed research about the Home and surrounding area. We are requesting the coordination of the community to inform the research that is planned on site and we look forward to hearing from you! In particular, if you have any connections to the history of the Steele Home, or had family members who might know about it, we would love to hear from you or answer any questions about the project. We look forward to hearing from you and we thank this community for ensuring that the stories of these meaningful resources are told.

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Results of the GPR survey with features outlined in yellow. The presumed Steele Home footprint is noted near the bottom of the image. 

Information Submission

Do you have information on the Steele Home for Needy Children or information relevant to the research project? Submit your information here!

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