Op/Ed By George Payne
I moved to Rochester as an Adirondack transplant in 2000. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I am only now beginning to learn about the life and legacy of the great abolitionist and businessman Austin Steward, who had his grocery store, and Underground Railroad shelter, on Main St. (site of the present day Clarion Riverside Hotel).
Fortunately, I am making up for lost time by visiting the many landmarks in the Flower City that have been devoted to the man who embodied resilience, determination, pragmatism, intelligence, and trustworthiness.
He rose up from the hellish conditions of the Virginian plantation fields to become one of the most successful and admired entrepreneurs in western New York, and was also one of the greatest fighters for human dignity and civil freedom this nation has ever known.
In many respects, Steward’s gripping autobiography helped change the tide of public opinion against slavery during a very crucial time in the Abolitionist movement.
The narrative below is derived from Austin Steward’s “Twenty Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman,” which was published in 1857.
In this horrific testimony, he described a system of state-sanctioned terror, which closely resembles the nightmarish policy Donald Trump has been advocating on the campaign trail, since early last year.
As a result, I’d like to invite readers to listen to Steward’s description of slavery in the context of Mr. Trump’s proposed laws, which propose to investigate, apprehend, prosecute, and expel millions of “illegals” from American territories. Is it any wonder he has the emphatic pledge of people such as David Duke?
“Slaves are never allowed to leave the plantation to which they belong, without a written pass. Should anyone venture to disobey this law, he will most likely be caught by the patrol, and given thirty-nine lashes. This patrol is always on duty every Sunday, going to each plantation under their supervision, entering every slave cabin, and examining closely the conduct of the slaves; and if they find one slave from another plantation without a pass, he is immediately punished with a severe flogging. I recollect going one Sunday with my mother to visit my grandmother; and while there, two or three of the patrol came and looked into the cabin, and seeing my mother, demanded her pass. She told them that she had one, but had left it in another cabin, from whence she soon brought it, which saved her a whipping, but we were terribly frightened. The reader will obtain a better knowledge of the character of a Virginia patrol by the relation of an affair which came off on the neighboring plantation of Col. Alexander, in which some forty of Capt. Helm’s slaves were engaged, and which proved rather destructive of human life in the end. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/NYPL The Anti-Slavery Record).
1836 SLAVE PATROL REGULATIONS ROWAN COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA,
1st. Patrols shall be appointed, at least four in each Captain’s district.
2d. It shall be their duty, for two of their number, at least, to patrol their respective districts once in every week; in failure thereof, they shall be subject to the penalties prescribed by law.
3d. They shall have power to inflict corporal punishment, if two be present agreeing thereto.
4th. One patroller shall have power to seize any negro slave who behaves insolently to a patroller, or otherwise unlawfully or suspiciously; and hold such slave in custody until he can bring together a requisite number of Patrollers to act in the business.
5th. Previous to entering on their duties, Patrols shall call on some acting magistrate, and take the following oath, to wit: “I, A. B. appointed one of the Patrol by the County Court of Rowan, for Captain B’s company, do hereby swear, that I will faithfully execute the duties of a Patroller, to the best of my ability, according to law, and the regulations of the County Court.” (Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library).”
To learn more about the life and legacy of Austin Steward, read “Austin Steward’s Legacy is the Pride of Rochester.”