Steward’s portrait, by artist Shawn Dunwoody, under the Interstate 490 bridge over West Main Street. Photos by and provided by George Payne
You’ve heard from George Payne on numerous occasions, most extensively of the work of the Lower Falls Foundation to create a World Heritage Site in the Lower Falls Park and Gorge. A World Heritage Site in our Backyard: preserving and profiting from the history, culture, and ecology of the Lower Falls Gorge
Today, George provides a carefully researched essay on one on Rochester’s most notable citizens, Austin Steward (1791 – 1869).
We appreciate George’s painstaking efforts to take original photographs. Actually, when I spoke with George yesterday, he was at the Clarion Riverside Hotel getting the pics.
Austin Steward’s Legacy is the Pride of RochesterI moved to Rochester as an Adirondack transplant in 2000. I am embarrassed to confess that I am only now beginning to learn about the life and legacy of the great Rochester abolitionist Austin Steward. Fortunately I am making up for lost time by visiting the many landmarks in the Flower City devoted to this freed slave turned grocer and internationally recognized social justice activist. I have quickly learned that Steward was a resilient, determined, pragmatic, intelligent, moral, and trustworthy man; he was also one of the greatest fighters for human dignity and civil freedom that this nation has ever known. Steward rose up from the hellish conditions of the Virginian plantation fields to become one of the most successful and admired businessman in Rochester; he also risked his life to learn the art of letters and to pen one of the most remarkable autobiographies of the antebellum period.
Austin Steward had an undaunted courage which could not be silenced. He set a standard of commercial excellence that was emulated throughout the region. And when it came time to leave the comfort of his possessions and entrenched reputation at home, he answered the call of duty by joining the Wilberforce Colony in Canada. In every way, Austin Steward was an outstanding model of goodness, hopefulness, ingenuity, and integrity.
Want to learn more? Thanks to the solid work of the Documenting the American South project, we know a great deal about Steward beyond his extraordinary autobiography. (BELOW)
WHO WAS AUSTIN STEWARD?
Born in Prince William County, Virginia, sometime in 1793, Austin A. Steward was the son of slave parents Robert and Susan Steward. He had one sister. His grandfather had been stolen from Africa while his mother washed clothes near the sea coast; he was sold in slavery to a Virginia planter. The Steward family lived in conditions common to slaves—a small cabin built with rough boards, an earthen floor, and small openings on the sides to serve as windows. Their furniture consisted of those pieces the slaves could procure while occasionally hired out to earn a little money.Around 1800 William Helm, a wealthy planter who held about one hundred slaves, purchased the Steward family. In his autobiography, Twenty-two Years a Slave, Austin Steward recalled being taken to the “great house” or Helm’s family mansion where he served as errand boy. He was required to stand in the presence of the Helm family—the two parents and their seven children—all day and a part of the night, in readiness for any task that they put before him. He also slept on the floor without a pillow or blanket, in the same room with his master and mistress.
In a different section of this haunting narrative Steward describes the inhumanity of enslavement in unforgettable terms:
It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men. Captain William Helm employed an overseer, whose business it was to look after each slave in the field, and see that he performed his task. The overseer always went around with a whip, about nine feet long, made of the toughest kind of cowhide, the but-end of which was loaded with lead, and was about four or five inches in circumference, running to a point at the opposite extremity. This made a dreadful instrument of torture, and, when in the hands of a cruel overseer, it was truly fearful. With it, the skin of an ox or a horse could be cut through. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner. Our overseer, thus armed with his cowhide, and with a large bull-dog behind him, followed the slaves all day; and, if one of them fell in the rear from any cause, this cruel weapon was plied with terrible force. He would strike the dog one blow and the slave another, in order to keep the former from tearing the delinquent slave in pieces, – such was the ferocity of his canine attendant.
Apparently Steward’s Virginian master kept his family in luxury. “He had a racecourse on his plantation and owned fine horses as well, but he was a poor businessman. After losing heavily on a horse race and making other poor management decisions, Helm was in debt and was forced to sell his plantation and stock; however, he kept his slaves. He left his family behind and took his slaves as he moved from Virginia to Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario in upstate New York. They traveled about twenty miles each day and camped at night, and arrived at their destination after about twenty days.
In 1803 Helms returned to Virginia, gathered his family, and moved his family and his slaves to Bath, New York. Austin Steward and another slave named Simon were hired out for a while to Henry Tower, who was from an enterprising family in Lyons, New York. The Tower family ran a large grist mill and a distillery. Sometime later, Steward managed to purchase a spelling book and, as best he could, taught himself to read. After his master’s son-in-law caught him reading—slaves were forbidden to read-Steward received a severe flogging, which made him even more determined to read and write. Helm’s business suffered again and he began to sell off his slaves.
Steward worked for Tower until about 1812, when he was hired out to another master. Then his thoughts turned toward freedom. He had seen his sister, who also lived in Bath, brutally beaten by her master; he had seen how the privileged people lived. He also questioned the legality of his slave status in New York state, for he knew about the 1785 law banning the sale of slaves brought into New York, and the gradual emancipation of slaves provided by the 1799 statue. The court decision of 1800, Fisher v. Fisher , further helped his case, for it outlawed hiring out slaves, as a violation of the 1785 law. Steward talked to a prominent lawyer who gave him instructions for pursuing his dream. After receiving Helm’s permission to visit friends in Geneva and Canandaigua in winter 1814, Steward talked with Dennis Comstock, president of the Manumission Society, who agreed to help him. Then Steward, now about twenty-two years old, escaped his master and was taken in by Comstock’s brother, Otis. (See Documenting the American South)
Born in Prince William County, Virginia
Will Helm purchases the Steward family
Moves with Helm to Sodus Bay, New York
Moves with Helm to Bath, New york
Escapes from his master
Relocates to Rochester and opens meat market
Teaches Sabbath School to black children, builds house and expands his business
Marries a woman referred to as “Miss B”
Joins in Emancipation Day celebration on July 4; becomes agent for Freedom’s Journal and the Rights of All
Attends first annual Convention for the Improvement of Colored People and serves as vice president
Moves with his family to Wilberforce, Canada
Relocates to Rochester
Attends the meeting of the Association for the Political Improvement of the People of Color held in New York City
Attends the meeting of the Association for the Political Improvement of the People of Color held in New York City
Works with New York Convention of Colored Men and Serves as its president
Returns to Canandaigua; teaches school; resumes antislavery activities
Publishes his autobiography, Twenty-two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman
Dies in Rochester, New York
Comstock hired Steward and gave him what Steward called in his autobiography “the dignity of collecting my own earnings.” He enjoyed his freedom: for the first time in his life he was allowed to sit at a table and take meals with others. About a year later, he thought that his freedom was ensured when Comstock refused to turn him over to Helm and reminded Helm that his actions violated state laws. When autumn came and the farm work was over, Steward went to a bookstore in Canandaigua and bought several old school books. With books in hand, he walked to Farmington to enroll in the local academy conducted by a man whom he identified simply as Mr. J. Comstock. About twenty-three years old when he entered, Steward stayed for three winters.
Between 1817 and 1820, Steward’s father died in Palmyra, of injuries and severe illness. Austin Steward began a peddling business in the flourishing city of Rochester, promoting farm items such as poultry, meat, cheese, corn, oats, butter, and other items that Comstock wanted to sell. He continued the prosperous business for several months. The next year he relocated to Rochester and went into business for himself. By now he could read well and had a good command of writing and arithmetic. In September 1817, he opened a meat market business in Rochester, in a room that he rented from a man named A. Weakley. He reached out to the community in the summer of 1818 by teaching Sabbath school, or Sunday school, to black children. “I hoped to be able to benefit in some measure the poor and despised colored children,” he wrote in his autobiography, but their parents suffered such degradation from whites and lacked courage and determination that they wanted very little for their children. At first their children attended the school well; they soon dropped out and the school ceased to operate.
In 1818 as well, Steward bough a lot on Main Street for $500. He built a two-story dwelling and store and expanded his business. Although he believed early on that he was free, Steward soon learned that his freedom was threatened. His old master, Helm, learned about his prosperity, and now, having been reduced to one slave woman and living on public charity himself, Helm hired a lawyer named Lewland who visited Steward at his business establishment and demanded that he pay Helm $200. He left a notice forbidding anyone to remove or destroy any of Steward’s property. Helm filed suit in the Court of Equity, claiming right to Steward’s property. Steward then hired a lawyer named A. Sampson, and they prepared for court. Meanwhile, Helm, who had lived a profligate life of excessive drinking and gambling, died, and so did the law suit.
Steward’s business flourished, and Steward was able to pay for his house and two lots. He built a valuable brick building for his grocery store, which included all kinds of food and grain, and all of his products sold rapidly. He considered that he needed a partner in life “to share my joys and sorrows, and to assist me on through the tempestuous scenes of a life-long voyage,” he wrote in his autobiography. On May 11, 1825, Steward married a local woman, whom he called in his autobiography “Miss B____,” the youngest daughter of a close and well-traveled friend. The Stewards had eght children.” (See Documenting the American South)
In 1831 Steward’s life changed forever when he joined the Wilberforce Colony in Canada at the urging of a group of settlers.Wilberforce Colony was established by free African-American citizens, founded in c. 1829 north of present-day London, Ontario, Canada. It was the outgrowth of one of several movements connected with the American Colonization Society (which was established in 1816 to settle free American blacks in a colony in Africa).Many American black communities who favored emigration preferred going to a country where free blacks could control their destiny. The establishment of Wilberforce Colony originated with blacks from Cincinnati, Ohio, who emigrated following passage of discriminatory laws in 1828 and a vicious riot against them in 1829.Although this was a unique period of emotional and spiritual growth for the Steward family, disputes with rival factions at Wilberforce, as well as other sociopolitical pressures on the community, prompted Steward to return to Rochester in 1837. “There he reentered business, and served on a committee appointed to oversee black schools in the city. After fire destroyed his business, he moved back to Canandaigua about 1842 and taught there. Despite this string of business failures, Steward regained his prominence during the early 1840s, presiding over New York State black conventions in 1840, 1841, and 1845 and simultaneously devoting new energy to the antislavery, black suffrage, and temperance causes. His evangelical approach to these struggles culminated in his attendance at the 1843 Christian convention at Syracuse, which attempted to harmonize reform ideals with New Testament principles.” (See Documenting the American South)Steward’s age forced him to localize his efforts; but he still chaired local black meetings, served as Canandaigua’s subscription agent for the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and was a vocalopponent of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Steward always spoke and wrote graphically about the abomination of slavery. The following passage from his autobiography is a prime example:
Some have attempted to apologize for the enslaving of the Negro, by saying that they are inferior to the Anglo-Saxon race in every respect. This charge I deny; it is utterly false. Does not the Bible inform us that “God hath created of one blood all the nations of the earth?” And certainly in stature and physical force the colored man is quite equal to his white brother, and in many instances his superior; but were it otherwise, I can not see why the more favored class should enslave the other. True, God has given to the African a darker complexion than to his white brother: still, each have the same desires and aspirations. The food required for the sustenance of one is equally necessary for the other. Naturally or physically, they alike require to be warmed by the cheerful fire, when chilled by our northern winter’s breath; and alike they welcome the cool spring and the delightful shade of summer. Hence, I have come to the conclusion that God created all men free and equal, and placed them upon this earth to do good and benefit each other, and that war and slavery should be banished from the face of the earth.
This is the superb quality readers can expect from Steward’s classic narrative. Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, was published in 1857 and sold well right away. In fact, the book was so popular that a second edition was printed within two years. Other editions followed: third edition, 1861 and fourth edition, 1867. (It was also reprinted in 1968, 1969 and 2002 by Syracuse University Press, with a scholarly introduction by Graham R. Hodges, and in 2004 by Dover Publications in Mineola, New York.)
Sadly, the terminal illness of his talented daughter Barbara during 1860-61 placed Steward in a precarious financial situation and prompted his return to Rochester to sell copies of his narrative and to seek aid from former friends. Although he entertained the idea of going south to teach black contrabands during the Civil War, he remained in Rochester until his death. (see Documenting the American South)
Steward is buried in the West Avenue Cemetery in Canandaigua.
Oh, when will this nation ” cease to do evil and learn to do well ? ” When will they judge character in accordance with its moral excellence, instead of the complexion a man unavoidably bears to the world ? – Austin Steward
Sections of this article originally appeared in