Profiled in the Rev. E. R. Carter’s The Black Side.
Born into slavery in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1846, Robert Steele was the son of J. and Carrie (_____) Steele. He used different first names during his life, including John and August, but he seems to have settled on James Robert Steele by 1885. He frequently was called Bob.
At a young age, Robert “[w]as apprenticed to the barber’s trade, and, marked for his wonderful aptness, he soon rose to the position of barber, having a chair of his own.” He came to Atlanta about 1864, and in April 1872 he married Emma Brown. When “his health began to fail,” he left barbering and “accepted a position as porter in the National Hotel.” After recovering, he returned to his profession and worked for Henry Brown and Louis Schelpert before opening his own barbershop on Marietta Street in 1881. That shop was “inviting within, and, at a glance, one [saw] that it [was] operated by master hands in this vocation.”
The 1880 U.S. federal census found Robert and his young family living on Grubb Street (now Poplar Street). He was on Wheat Street (now Auburn Avenue) by 1881 and at his final family home on North Butler Street (now Jesse Hill Jr Drive) in 1884.
Called “the Prince of Barbers” by the Rev. Carter, Robert was among the “Southern black barbers [who] capitalized on the growth of New South cities, such as Durham and Atlanta, which brought moneyed men to town.” He was a contemporary of Alonzo Herndon and counted “among the wealthiest black barbers operating in Atlanta” in the 1880s and 1890s.
When Robert’s mother, Carrie Steele, determined to start “an orphans’ home for colored children,” she “received great encouragement and many liberal promises to help.” She planned to teach the orphaned children “to cook, to sew, and to do other useful things.” When the home was established in June 1888, Robert—along with Sidney Root and Bishop Wesley John Gaines—served as an incorporator. The Carrie Steele-Pitts Home still exists today. Robert was also “an honored member of the Masonic Lodge, and also of the Afro-American Historical Society.”
Robert was “a great admirer and friend” of Henry Grady, and he accompanied him on “many . . . long trips.” During a trip to Boston with Grady in the summer of 1899, Robert contracted consumption and died about four weeks later in August at his home at 175 North Butler Street. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Oakland Cemetery. His wife apparently survived him by several decades and worked at the Carrie Steele Home after her mother-in-law’s death. Although she disappears from the record after 1900, Oakland Cemetery records her death as July 1923.
Members of Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, Robert and Emma (Brown) Steele were the parents of five sons: Frank Steele (ca. 1873–1931), a barber in Atlanta and Chicago; James Robert Steele, Jr. (ca. 1874–1914), a railroad porter in Chicago and New York; Ludwig Steele (b. ca. 1879); Max Kutz Steele (ca. 1881–1955), a 10th Cavalry Regiment veteran of the Spanish-American War and federal government employee in Washington, DC; and Percy Steele (ca. 1885 –1953), a resident of Pittsburgh.
Atlanta Constitution. “A Colored Orphans’ Home.” March 20, 1887.
———. “The County Court House.” June 9, 1888.
———. “Bob Steele Is Dead.” August 31, 1899.
Carter, E. R. The Black Side. Atlanta, GA: 1894.
Clarke, E. Y. Atlanta Illustrated. Atlanta, GA: James P. Harrison & Co., 1881.
Mills, Quincy T. Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America. Philadelphia, PA: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.