Despite having the status of slave, Austin Steward took advantage of business practices that he learned in order to become a prosperous merchant. His disdain for slavery and its oppression of black people led him to join the antislavery movement as soon as he became free. Although Steward remained a marginal figure, his abolitionist work brought him in touch with other black abolitionists, including Henry Highland Garnett, J. W. Loguen, and Frederick Douglass, who worked fervently for full citizenship for black people.
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. Captain Helm was a kind, pleasant, and humorous man and not harsh as a master; nonetheless, the Steward family was still enslaved.
Helm was a powerful man who kept his family in luxury and elegance. 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.
- 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 and lives in
- 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 eight children.
Former Slave Becomes Abolitionist
Meanwhile, as his business prospered, Steward became an activist. The vestiges of slavery still plagued him, and he reached out to blacks in the North who, though free, endured considerable racial prejudice. He was a key figure in Rochester's July 4 celebration. Previously blacks and abolitionists had celebrated West Indian Emancipation Day; by 1827, blacks in New York had celebrated July 4 for a few years. They considered the 1817 law that extended slave emancipation to cover those born before July 4, 1799, noting that blacks were to be free as of July 4, 1827. Rochester's blacks celebrated July 4 with booming cannons, and the procession moved though main streets to the public square, where seats and a stage were arranged. Governor Tompkins was the chief architect of blacks' emancipation, but the honored speaker was runaway slave and prosperous grocer Austin A. Seward, who told the audience, "Let us, my countrymen, henceforth remember that we are men," reported Benjamin Quarles who cited Freedom's Journal for July 27 and September 8, 1827. Some twenty-seven years later, the celebration was resurrected for a single time in Auburn's Sanford Hall, where the audience was predominantly white. By then, Steward was an elderly man, yet he was seated on the platform along with prominent black abolitionists J. W. Loguen, Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, and longtime friend of blacks and women's righter Lucretia Mott.
For two years (1827–29), Steward worked as an agent for the black newspapers Freedom's Journal and the Rights All. He became active in black organizations as well. When the first annual Convention for the Improvement of Colored People was held in Philadelphia in 1830, Steward served as vice president.
As blacks remained concerned about their liberty, many hoped for relief from oppression. Some moved west to California, only to encounter the Fugitive Slave Law that was still in force there in 1855. Some left for Canada, which they considered a safe haven. As many as 40,000 had moved to Canada during the antebellum period. Some settled close to the Canadian border, so that they might move back and forth across the border for safety. In 1829, Canada saw its first significant migration of blacks, who fled the aftermath of a race riot in Cincinnati. They organized a commune called Wilberforce, and made it a self-supporting and self-governing community. In 1831, Steward and his family moved to the newly organized black community, and Steward invested his savings in the community venture. He dabbled in politics, serving one term as clerk of Biddulph Township. He replaced agent Israel Lewis as principal community leader, but six years later the venture collapsed. The suc-cess that Steward knew in Rochester was missing in Wilberforce. He and Lewis were at odds over the handing of local finances and other issues. In 1836, Lewis was removed as the principal agent. After that brothers Benjamin and Nathaniel Paul replaced Lewis, but they were equally unsuccessful. The community was so wracked by turmoil and dissension that it all but ceased to exist by 1837. Once the community had lost all of its appeal and effectiveness and he had lost all of his money, Steward and his family left for Rochester on January 19, 1837.
The family reached Rochester on January 23, 1837, and immediately Steward worked to resume his grocery business for a season. He opened a small variety store at the corner of Main and North streets, and one year later moved to a store on Buffalo Street, opposite the courthouse. He took as his partner John Lee, an industrious young man; with his help, the business prospered. Around this time he embraced the temperance movement and provided dinner for a local temperance celebration. Steward and his business endured the aftermath of the 1837 panic and a fire that destroyed his business. But tragedy followed: on April 15, 1837, his oldest daughter died.
Around 1842 he moved back to Canandaigua, taught school, and resumed his antislavery work. Although he was a Presbyterian, soon afterward, he visited New York City and joined the African Methodist Episcopal Conference, where he developed a friendship with Bishop Alexander Walters of Baltimore. Steward became an agent for the National Antislavery Standard. He was active in the political antislavery movement of this period. He worked with the New York Convention of Colored Men in 1840, 1841, and 1845, and served as president of that organization. Steward was a member of the Association for the Political Improvement of the People of Color, formed in July 1838 in New York City. The group met in New York City on August 1, 1939, and the next year held a statewide meeting in Albany to protest political disenfranchisement. Austin Steward was president of the group, and William H. Topp, Charles L. Reason, and Henry Highland Garnet were secretaries. Reported in the Emancipator for December 31, 1840, and cited by Benjamin Quarles, the men called on blacks of the commonwealth to insist on the ballot: "Let every man send in his remonstrance. Let petitions be scattered in every quarter." In his work, Steward lobbied on behalf of black male suffrage, insisting that it should be on equal terms as white suffrage.
Throughout his life Steward remained committed to the cause of freedom for blacks. Wherever he lived, his home was open to fugitive slaves, particularly in Rochester, where he saw the distresses of poor, frightened fugitives who escaped from Southern bondage. He told his own story in his slave narrative, Twenty-two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, originally published by William Alling in 1856. An engraving of Steward is printed on the frontispiece. Austin Steward died in Rochester in 1865, having lived long enough to see his people freed by the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
Low, W. Augustus, and Virgil A. Clift, eds. Encyclopedia of Black America. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1981.
Pease, William H., and Jane H. Pease. "Austin Steward." In American National Biography. Vol. 20. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.