Although she was born into slavery in Georgia in 1829, Carrie Steele was one of the first black landowners in Atlanta and left behind a legacy that forever changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. She is an unsung hero in the horticulture world.
Steele moved to Atlanta, Georgia after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Executive Order of 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation. We do not know much about Steele’s early years, apart from the fact that she was abandoned as a child and learned to read and write while still a slave. While in Atlanta, Steele worked in the Georgia Central Railroad Station as a stewardess. She made $100 a month.
During those days, many homeless or abandoned babies and children lived in the train station. Steele was appalled at the number of orphans that she came across. Whenever she found children, she started to leave them in an empty boxcar to play while she worked, then she brought them home with her. Steele soon realized that her home was too small to house all of the children that she was caring for. So, she started to work on a solution to this problem and diligently saved her earnings. To raise more funds, she wrote her autobiography and sold it on the street.
In the late 1880s, Steele bought four acres of land. With $5000 she had saved, she built a three-story brick home, founding one of the first orphanages for black children: the Carrie Steele Orphans’ Home. This is where her contributions to horticulture enters the story. For Steele, the Orphan’s Home was not just a place to shelter children. It was a center of learning to set them up for success later in life as adults seeking gainful employment. They were homeschooled from a regular curriculum, had a nondenominational Sunday School, and were instructed in gardening and farm work.
A journalist who was sent to cover a story about the orphanage ended up writing in detail about the garden on the orphanage grounds. In a lecture for The Cummer Museum, horticulturalist and Longwood Fellow Abra Lee says, “the children were assigned tasks such as weeding, doing the landscape, [and] training the vines over the porch windows.” These children beautified the landscape of their Home with chrysanthemums and violets in the winter. This is especially unique for the time period, according to Lee, because most Georgian landscapes at the time were minimalist and sparse.
Although she was born into humble circumstances, in a nation that considered her a piece of property, Steele did not let that condition define her. She learned to read and write during a time when it was illegal for slaves to be literate. She moved to the big city to seek greater opportunities, saw that there were many homeless children in Atlanta, and applied herself diligently to find a solution. She wrote an autobiography while working full time and caring for orphaned children. She saved up $5000 on a $100 a month salary and her side hustle selling her autobiography and used that to establish a home for orphaned children. She taught these children skills in horticulture, farming, and more. Steele was a phenomenal woman.
Steele passed away in 1900. Her gravestone in Oakland Cemetery reads, “The mother of orphans. She hath done what she could.” The institution that Steele created, now called the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, still operates today. Students participate in hands-on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) workshops at least two hours a week, and the science of gardening continues to be a main focus.
“Culture and Conversation: The Invincible Garden Ladies with Abra Lee,” https://youtu.be/IHgvLF_r_zU
Georgia Women of Achievement, “Carrie Steele Logan,” https://www.georgiawomen.org/carrie-steele-logan
New Georgia Encyclopedia, “Carrie Steele Logan (1829-1900),” https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/carrie-steele-logan-1829-1900
Wikipedia, “Carrie Steele Logan,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_Steele_Logan