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Former Slave Becomes Abolitionist

steward blacks july community

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 success 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.

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