Gaston: Howard School is Chattanooga's reminder of Reconstruction

Ewing Ogden Tade
Ewing Ogden Tade

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Howard School, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in August 2015, is arguably Chattanooga's most visible symbol of Reconstruction, a period described by historian James W. Loewen as "that period after the Civil War when African-Americans briefly enjoyed full civil and political rights."

The school is named after U.S. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (1830-1909), who in June 1862 lost an arm at the Battle of Seven Pines-Fair Oaks in Virginia. After fighting at Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, he was transferred to the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, where he took part in the Union assault that captured Missionary Ridge.

Appointed commander of the Army of the Tennessee, he fought in Atlanta and joined Sherman's famous March to the Sea. Howard was known as the "Christian general" for making policy decisions based on his strong religious beliefs. From May 1865 to July 1874 he served as commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau where his mission was to integrate freed slaves into society. In 1874 he went to Washington Territory, where he pursued and received the surrender of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.

At the war's end, thousands of blacks poured into Chattanooga and other Southern cities.

By early 1865, several thousand freed people occupied Camp Contraband across the river from Chattanooga. Among groups responding to the crisis was the American Missionary Association. Ewing Ogden Tade, born in Illinois in 1828, became interested in the association while a student at Iowa College (later Grinnell) in Davenport, Iowa, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1858. He then studied at Chicago Theological Seminary and was ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1862. By 1865 he was in Memphis preaching to slaves while his wife, Pennsylvania native Amanda Louise, and his brother, James A. Tade, taught in a Freedmen's School.

Promoted to field agent, Tade began working with the freedmen at Camp Contraband in Chattanooga. His principal contribution was the organization of Howard School, located at Sixth and Pine in a former Confederate medical facility, a newly whitewashed wooden building that was 50 feet square. He staffed the school with Northern teachers from the missionary association and Western Freedmen's Aid Commission, and solicited free textbooks from Northern publishers. In May of 1867 he was named city school commissioner, and a few months later the Board of Aldermen designated Howard the city's first public school.

The Tennessee State Historical Marker for Howard School describes Tade as a black Congregationalist minister. But C. Stuart M. McGhee, in his Tennessee Historical Quarterly (Winter 1984) article "E. O. Tade, Freedmen's Education, and the Failure of Reconstruction in Tennessee," groups Tade with "other Northern white teachers [who] helped to facilitate the emancipated blacks' desires for training and literacy." McGehee prefaces that statement by crediting the freedmen themselves as providing the main impetus for educational opportunity.

Tade also sought to improve religious and economic opportunities for the freedmen. In 1867 he organized a church at Ninth and Lindsay streets, called variously Union Chapel, Pilgrim Church, and finally the First Congregationalist Church of Chattanooga. Both blacks and white Northerners attended the church, until blacks set up their own churches and drifted away. Tade purchased land near the federal fortifications at Fort Wood to build housing for 50 to 100 families, known among blacks as "Tadetown." He also organized a branch of the National Freedmen's Savings and Trust Bank.

As Hamilton County's first superintendent of education, he reported early in 1869 that Hamilton County had 82 public schools, 28 of them for blacks-quite an accomplishment in a state that before the war was prejudiced against public schools.

As the state and local power structures began to re-emerge, Tade's projects suffered. White schools received more funding, the Freedmen's Bank closed, and the land in Fort Wood that had been confiscated by the Freedmen's Bureau was returned to its pre-war owners.

In 1873 Ewing Tade left Chattanooga. After a year teaching at Tusculum College, he and his family left the South. He was a missionary to the Indians and Chinese in California and built Congregational churches in Antioch and San Mateo. He returned east several times, once to receive an honorary doctorate in divinity from Grinnell, but never again visited Chattanooga.

After Tade died in Los Angeles in 1919, a colleague wrote in The Grinnell Review: "He was a kind-hearted man but attacked the evils of the world with stunning blows. He was one of the champions of Liberty."

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and former Chattanoogan. For more visit

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