By Chester Freeman
Reflecting on African American history in the Finger Lakes, one of the first names brought to mind is Frederick Douglass. However, there is an “unsung hero” who paved the way for Douglass, and that individual is Austin Steward.
Steward is an important historical figure and his remains are buried in the West Avenue Cemetery in Canandaigua. This man, who spent much of his childhood sleeping on the floor of his master’s home like a dog, without even a blanket to cover him in the winter, grew up to become a free man whose life embodied the meaning of the word integrity. His book Twenty-two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman was a significant contribution to the world and particularly to pre-Civil War history in the Finger Lakes Region.
Determined to learn
Steward was born into slavery in 1794 to Robert and Susan, who were owned by Captain William Helm of Prince William County, Virginia. When Captain Helm was forced to sell his plantation to cover gambling debts and other financial matters, they moved to Upstate New York. Captain Helm first stopped in Sodus Bay, but ended up settling in Bath. Once established, he decided to rent Steward and his sister to other plantations to bring in additional income.
Away from the constraints of Captain Helm, Steward’s world view changed and he developed an interest in reading. However, Captain Helm’s son-in-law beat Steward for learning to read. He burnt his book and threatened to “whip every inch of skin off his back” if he caught Steward with another book. Yet this incident only made Steward more determined, not only to learn how to read, but also write. In time, he found someone with a sympathetic heart to teach him.
Finding his freedom
In his writing, Steward recalled one of his most memorable experiences, which took place in Oaks Corners. He described a huge festival with tents and concessions, where military dressed in full regalia and the celebration lasted several days. Steward was so impressed that he considered joining the military as a way to freedom. He applied for the position of waiter to General McClure, but Captain Helm would not allow it.
During the winter of 1814, Steward received permission to visit friends in Geneva and Canandaigua. He described both villages as small, pretty and beautifully designed. He met with James McClure, one of the directors of the Manumission Society in Geneva, which helped to liberate slaves. Steward discussed how he could “own himself” and McClure was very willing to help, but asked him to wait until March. Instead, Steward decided to join one of Captain Helm’s former slaves who was running away. With the help of compassionate sympathizers, he found a safe haven and support from Darius Comstock, president of the Manumission Society. Still, even after Steward obtained his freedom, Captain Helm tried to get him back by scheming to trick him. He did not succeed.
Living with dignity
Sometime during the year of 1816, Steward’s father died in Palmyra. Robert had taught his son how to survive and live with dignity, even when no cooking or eating utensils were provided in the slave quarters, and there was no bed to sleep on.
In September of 1817, Steward started a meat market in Rochester with the help of abolitionist Otis Comstock, who mentored him as he became active in the anti-slavery movement. During the summer of 1818, Steward opened “The Sabbath School for Children of Color” in Canandaigua. The good people of Canandaigua and donations from foreign countries made the educational opportunity possible. Steward himself was self taught until the age of 23, when he attended an academy in Farmington.
When slavery was abolished in New York State, Steward gave the Emancipation speech on July 5, 1827 in Rochester. His oration encouraged people of color to educate themselves, become entrepreneurs, and live lives of integrity based on faith. Steward was a deeply religious man and in 1828 he was elected as a trustee of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Rochester.
A man of conviction
The greatest example of Steward’s religious conviction was when he closed his business in 1830 and moved his family to Canada. By this time, he was married with a daughter and a successful career. But Steward had heard about fugitive slaves from other states trying to secure freedom in Canada and he felt compelled to help them.
He agonized over the decision and ultimately decided that he had to “pay it forward.” So, Steward worked to organize a board which would raise funds to purchase land and establish a colony in Canada. He named the colony “Wilberforce,” after William Wilberforce of Great Britain, who had worked to help abolish the slave trade in England. Steward became president of the board and elected two men to travel, lecture and raise funds to support the colony. In the beginning, things went well and Steward was elected Vice President of the First Annual Convention of People of Color held in Philadelphia.
When Steward arrived in Canada, he found 1,100 fugitive slaves living in the woods. He began to help
immediately and contributed all of his personal savings to start the colony. As time went on, Steward realized that the two men he had originally elected as the board’s fundraisers were not responsible. They had embezzled money, made accusations and even filed a lawsuit. With no funding left to purchase the land needed to expand the colony, and his own personal savings depleted, Steward returned to Rochester, empty handed.
When his friends learned what happened in Canada, they helped Steward secure a home and re-establish his business. In 1842, he returned to Canandaigua and taught school, lectured, wrote and worked with anti-slavery groups.
As Steward was getting on in years, in 1857 he decided to publish his autobiography. The book begins with letters that testify to his integrity, high moral character and hard-working nature. Letters at the end of the book prove that he did his best to support the colony and was not at fault regarding the funds. Instead, its failure was due to others taking advantage of Steward’s trusting nature.
The book was so popular that a second edition was printed within two years. Other editions followed: third edition, 1861 and fourth edition, 1867. Steward died two years later. His book was 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.
Austin Steward is remembered today for his work as a great abolitionist. In the city of Rochester, a bronze bust of Steward, designed by Calvin Hubbard, can be seen on the second floor of the Radisson Hotel, the site where his own business was once located. Further downtown, Steward’s portrait, by artist Shawn Dunwoody, can be seen on a pier of the Interstate 490 bridge over West Main Street. Alongside the images of Nathaniel Rochester, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, Steward’s message of integrity still inspires us today.