Blue Oval Finds its Home

Howard Industrial School

Michael Kenney

A School’s Blue Oval Finds Its Home

Historic marker at 585-587 Putnam Avenue

During the Bicentennial year, a blue oval historic marker was placed at a location then believed to be the site of the Howard Industrial School, a post-Civil War training school for black women and children relocating from the South. But research into the history of the school by Diane Boucher, then a graduate student at Clark University, raised questions about the accuracy of locating it at the corner of Pleasant Street and Putnam Avenue.

Further research in the files of the Cambridge Historical Commission and other public records placed the school some three blocks further east, at what was then described as “a two-story 1847 Greek Revival house.” That is now 585-587 Putnam Avenue near the corner of Sidney Street.

The school had its origins — and got its name — from a request in 1866 by General Charles Howard seeking opportunities “for some of the many thousand freed people crowded together in the neighborhood of Washington” to find work and “opportunities for them to acquire habits of industry and self-dependence.”

Led by Anna Lowell, a local abolitionist, a committee of prominent Bostonians and Cantabrigians took on the mission and located a site for a training school. By November 1866, General Howard had sent along a group of 23 women. Others followed and by 1868, some 463 persons — mainly women — had passed through the school. Many of the women apparently did not stay long at the school, as they were quickly trained and placed as domestic workers in Boston and Cambridge homes. The school ceased operations by 1871.

The confusion as to the site of the school was perhaps due, suggested Charles Sullivan, Executive Director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, to the fact that Elijah Goodrich, the school’s landlord, owned multiple properties along Walnut (now Putnam) Avenue, including “a double two-story house” at 585-587 Putnam Avenue. The school is not specifically named in deeds, but city directories for 1867 through 1871 list the school’s location at “Walnut near Brookline.” Sidney Street only extended a few blocks at this time, so the description makes sense because Brookline Street was the closest through street from the river to Central Square. The Cambridge Directory for 1868 lists Miss Lowell as matron of the school.

Cambridge Directory 1868 listing for the Howard Industrial School

It has taken the better part of five years to secure the blue oval marker and then to obtain the permission of Paul Edwards, owner of the 1982 building that now occupies the site. The marker is visible from the street on the wall of a second-floor porch.

Report of the Howard Industrial School, 1867

For more information about historic site markers in Cambridge, visit this web page.