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Steward, Austin(1793–1865) - Abolitionist, slave, Chronology

helm family york business

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.

Chronology

1793

Born in Prince William County, Virginia

1800?

Will Helm purchases the Steward family

1801?

Moves with Helm to Sodus Bay, New York

1803

Moves with Helm to Bath, New york

1814

Escapes from his master and lives in

1817

Relocates to Rochester and opens meat market

1818

Teaches Sabbath School to black children, builds house and expands his business

1825

Marries a woman referred to as “Miss B”

1827

Joins in Emancipation Day celebration on July 4; becomes agent for Freedom’s Journal and the Rights of All

1830

Attends first annual Convention for the Improvement of Colored People and serves as vice president

1831

Moves with his family to Wilberforce, Canada

1837

Relocates to Rochester

1839

Attends the meeting of the Association for the Political Improvement of the People of Color held in New York City

1839

Attends the meeting of the Association for the Political Improvement of the People of Color held in New York City

1840–1841

Works with New York Convention of Colored Men and Serves as its president

1842

Returns to Canandaigua; teaches school; resumes antislavery activities

1856

Publishes his autobiography, Twenty-two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman

1865

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.

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