The impressive Second Empire-style house at 607 Howard Place, Northwest, Washington, DC, was the home of General Oliver Otis Howard who led the groundbreaking Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. The program, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was created after the Civil War to protect the civil rights of newly freed African Americans. Howard was also a founder and the namesake of Howard University, which has since become one of the premier centers of American higher learning.
Oliver Otis Howard was born on November 8, 1830 in Leeds, Maine. He attended Bowdoin College and then West Point Military Academy where his abolitionist leanings alienated him from many of his classmates. After graduating 4th in his class, Howard married Elizabeth Ann Waite. In 1857, Howard traveled to Florida to join the military campaign against the Seminoles. During this time, he became deeply religious. Later that year, Howard returned to West Point to teach mathematics. With the outbreak of the Civil War in early 1861, he became colonel of the Third Maine Regiment. He rose to the rank of general by the end of the conflict.
After the Union victory in 1865, Howard became the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Beyond providing basic living supplies such as food and clothing, the goal of the Bureau was to ensure blacks access to land and education. It was a difficult job in the South, where whites resented the U.S. military occupation. White legislatures in former Confederate states passed a series of prohibitive laws, known as the Black Codes, to halt the political and social advancement of blacks. Widespread racial violence threatened Freedman’s Bureau workers, and blacks in general. On occasion, bureau workers reminded newly freed people about the importance of self-sufficiency. Well-versed in industriousness, freedmen resented such lectures. Despite its imperfections, the Freedmen’s Bureau protected black civil rights at a critical political period. Bureau agents helped to re-negotiate labor contracts and, after the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, helped enfranchise African Americans. As the result of Freedmen’s schools, black literacy dramatically increased. In June 1872, Congress shut down the Bureau because of the resurgence of Southern political power.
General Howard helped found DC’s Howard University in 1867. The university, which included schools of law, theology, and medicine, excluded no one on the basis of race. Howard later reflected that Howard University gave, “…intelligent youth at the nation's capital, whatever might have been their previous condition, the benefits of a complete collegiate course and of a thorough professional training.” He served as university president from 1869 to 1873.
General Howard went on to represent the U.S. Army in Native American affairs. In 1872, he traveled to Arizona to negotiate a treaty with the Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise. Howard successfully stopped the violence between the Native Americans and the white settlers. Howard then left his presidential appointment to take command of the Department of the Columbia in Oregon. He oversaw the violent removal of Nez Perce from Oregon onto a small Idaho reservation. In 1904, he retired from the army as a major general at the age of sixty-four. He died in Vermont in 1909.
Soon after Howard’s death the expanding university bought the building and renamed it Howard Hall. It has housed several academic departments. Today Howard University hosts conferences and special events in the space. The only structure remaining from the original campus, Howard House retains many of its original decorative elements such as the high mansard roof, corner tower, dormer windows and iron balustrades. The location of the house on a historically black university campus illustrates General Howard’s lifelong commitment to promoting physical, economic and intellectual freedom for African Americans.
Egerton, Douglas R. The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014.
Howard, O.O. Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General, United States Army, Volume 1. New York: The Baker and Taylor Company, 1907.
Howard, O.O. Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General, United States Army, Volume 2. New York: The Baker and Taylor Company, 1907.
Langguth, A.J. After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.
Seymour, Deni J. and George Robertson. “A Pledge of Peace: Evidence of the Cochise-Howard Campsite.” Historical Archaeology 42, No. 4 (2007):154-179.
Sutton, Robert K. and John A. Latschar, eds. The Reconstruction Era. Eastern National, 2016.
“The Nez Pearce War.” National Park Service pamphlet.
Thomson, David. “Oliver Otis Howard: Reassessing the Legacy of the ‘Christian General’.” American Nineteenth Century History 10, No. 3 (2009): 273-298.
National Historic Landmark Nomination for the General Oliver Otis Howard House
National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are historic places that possess exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States. The National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program oversees the designation of such sites. There are just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks. All NHLs are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.