Dr. Joseph Flake Steelman died at the age of 92 on January 21, 2015, after a distinguished career as a historian and teacher. He was born in Moravian Falls in Wilkes County, the son of Joseph and Gertrude Edmisten Steelman. A true intellectual of great ability, he earned three history degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Joe’s honors essay for his bachelor’s degree, “Southern Prosperity, 1820-1860: A Study in Conflicting Views,” ran to 180 pages. While an undergraduate, he was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor fraternity. Following his service in the United States Army during World War II, Joe earned a master’s degree in history. His thesis was entitled “The Immigration Movement in North Carolina, 1865-1890.” For his doctorate in history, which he received in 1955, Joe focused on the Progressive Era in North Carolina. His multi-volume dissertation is 755 pages long and remains the authoritative source on that subject. According to Bob Anthony, it is the most frequently used dissertation held by the North Carolina Collection at UNC’s Wilson Library.
Dr. Steelman mined this dissertation for nine articles in the North Carolina Historical Review, published between 1964 and 1979. Several of these garnered the Historical Society of North Carolina’s R. D. W. Connor Award. In fact, Mike Hill says that Joe won the award more times than anyone else. In addition, in 1975, the North Carolina Division of Archives & History published Dr. Steelman’s monograph, North Carolina’s Role in the Spanish American War. His many book reviews appeared in several historical journals.
Students at UNC, Texas A & M, and East Carolina University profited from Dr. Steelman’s effective teaching. Moving to Greenville in the late 1950s, he and his lovely wife Lala, also a distinguished historian, made significant contributions to the development of the ECU Department of History. Joe served as director of graduate studies, and both of them contributed to the department’s series of publications on North Carolina and American history. Joe, in particular, was a proponent of developing a manuscript collection at ECU, which began in the history department and later was moved to the library. This was done to afford history students the opportunity to conduct research in primary sources.
Joe gave freely of his time to the historical profession. In addition to his active participation in this society, he served on the Advisory Editorial Committee of the North Carolina Historical Review and as president of the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. In recognition of this and other service, Lit and Hist in 1996 presented Joe and Lala with the Cristopher Crittenden Memorial Award. Ten years later, the North Caroliniana Society came to Greenville to give Joe a “Special Award” in recognition of his accomplishments.
Dr. Steelman stongly believed in progressive causes, and he worked hard to promote them through the Democratic Party. It was a privilege to talk politics with him during visits to his home or on trips to attend meetings of this society. He fondly recalled his participation on a committee in 1960 that convinced Senator John F. Kennedy to make a campaign stop in Greenville.
Dr. Steelman’s interest in the historical profession never waned. He developed an impressive library in his home in Greenville, where he maintained long runs of several national, regional, and state historical journals. When he ran out of space for them, he enlisted the help of this writer to make sure that they found good institutional homes. He donated his personal papers, and those of his wife, to the East Carolina Manuscript Collection at the ECU library. Joe was proud of his correspondence with such noted historians as Arthur Link, which was used by his son, Bill, the author of Links: My Family in American History (2012).
–Maury York, April 10, 2015