By Tracie Isaac
July 5th is being recognized locally as “Austin Steward Day” which dates back to July 5, 1827, when according to Steward’s autobiography, he gave an anti-slavery speech during the celebration of the final emancipation of slaves in New York.
Austin Steward (1793-1869) is one of Rochester’s most influential residents who liberted himself from slavery and became one of the city’s first African American business owners by establishing a meat market and general store in 1817. Steward had several firsts, first public school educator and one of the first anti-slavery activists. He taught himself to read around the age of seven and was severely punished. However, his mindset was progressive and his family instilled in him the principles of integrity and faith. He was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a lawyer and author.
To bring awareness to Steward’s legacy a local celebration was hosted by the Community Justice Initiative (CJI) and the YMCA located at 597 Thurston Road. CJI presented a free community program including Story Telling, theatrical monologues, music, vendors, Town Hall Discussion and a Panel Discussion “Freedom Now.”
Youth and adults received free books on the life of Austin Steward “Twenty-Two Years A Slave And Forty Years a Freeman” along with other books by African American authors and reproductions of Stewards book in large print for the senior community.
“Austin Steward is very relevant to today and our community because he is an example of changing your circumstances. After being liberated from slavery he immediately became a business owner, and that’s inspiring for me,” stated Craig Diaolo Payne, Community Justice Initiative Organizer and Activist. “Later in his business Steward hired a young person to work with him which was something he believed in, supporting youth and empowering people from various angles… Steward was so well rounded that he was able to empower the different aspects of Black Life, that is something that inspired me and that I try to do.”
Steward seems to be an “unsung hero” according to historians of the Finger Lakes region who feel Steward paved the way for Frederick Douglass. His July 5, 1827 anti-slavery speech received press coverage of the message that encouraged people of color to educate themselves, become entrepreneurs, and live lives of integrity based on faith.
During the local celebration many of Steward’s principals were emphasized for youth by speakers. Victor Saunders, Special Advisor on Violence Prevention Programs to the City of Rochester addressed how young people of today should look to Austin Steward’s life as an example of making life better for yourself instead of resulting to violence.
The violence and conflict among young people seems to reflect the feeling of low self-esteem and not valuing other human life. When we look at Austin Steward who did not let his enslavement or access to education hold him down, he pushed forward and sought information and education on his own terms. Once obtaining the information he continued to help others to understand that freedom was at hand and working for your own wages empowers you to empower others.
Steward was born a slave in 1793 in Prince William, Virginia. The Steward family consisting of his father Robert, mother Susan and sister Mary and Austin were purchased in 1800 as slaves by the planter Capt. William Helm.
Helm owned racehorses and went into debt forcing him to sell his property. The Steward family relocated with the Helm household to the town of Bath, New York.
Most of Steward’s childhood was filled with discomfort and cruelty. His master made him sleep on the floor in the master’s bedroom like a dog, without even a blanket to cover him in the winter, while Helm and his wife slept in comfort.
Capt. Helm was in financial difficulty and hired out his slaves to other farmers. The horrific and sever treatment experienced by Steward motivated his reason to escape slavery.
Self determination and integrity motivated Steward to grow up to become a free man whose life exemplified the meaning of the word integrity.
Steward was freed in 1813 about the age of 21 and became acquainted with abolitionists who helped him to go to school in Victor, NY. He ventured into Canada in 1815 where he joined the Wilberforce Colony that was established by the Society of Friends, known as Quakers.
Settling in Rochester, New York, (then known as Rochesterville) in 1817, Steward immediately opened a meat market. After an incident of local whites destroying his store signs, the store soon became successful among all citizens. Steward used the business profits to free more slaves and to support the ex-slave community in Wilberforce Colony in Canada.
Steward became acquainted with Darius Comstock, president of the Manumission Society, who mentored him. Steward initially worked for Comstock who later helped him publish his autobiography Twenty-two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman which is a significant contribution to the world and specifically to pre-Civil War history.
Austin Steward was respected both within Rochester and among free Black people all over the United States. His work and concern for others compelled him to help establish The Sabbath School for Coloreds. He shared his ideas by writing and lecturing on economical, political, and social equality. His autobiography, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, was published in 1857.
Members of the Steward family are buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery. Austin Steward was laid to rest in 1869 at the West Avenue Cemetery in Canandaigua, New York.
It is reported that the significance of July 5th connects Steward’s 1827 speech as laying the groundwork for Frederick Douglass’ July 5, 1852 piercing speech “What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
According to historical archives, nearly twenty-five years after Steward’s speech, Douglass was invited to speak on July 4, 1852 at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall for an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration Of Independenceby the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, N.Y. Douglass declined the date of July 4th and opted to speak on July 5th. Douglass’ speech was regarded by biographer William S. McFeely as one of the greatest anti-slavery oratory presentations. Steward’s ideas and abolitionist activities began in Rochester and are reflected in Frederick Douglass’ life.
Mayor Malik D. Evans shared a brief statement to support CJI for the work that they are doing in the community. He referred to a t-shirt produced by CJI “Say Less, Do More” which reflects the initiatives and contributions of CJI in the local community. “We need people to get out and do the work. This event recognizing one of Rochester’s most prominent citizens, Austin Steward, is an example of work that empowers and imparts knowledge to our community,” stated Mayor Evans. He also encouraged attendees to research more about Steward and to visit the sculptured bust on display in the Central Library.
Local actors Reuben Tapp (Austin Steward) and David Shakes (Frederick Douglass) re-enacted excerpts from the famous July 5th speeches. David Shakes closed by stating “Austin Steward’s life and legacy was relevant then, relevant now and relevant for the future.”
Organizers hope that the celebration of “Austin Steward Day” inspires interest in bringing his narratives into local schools and other impactful arenas of thought, as well as to continue to celebrate one of the forefathers of the early days of Rochester.