Austin Steward: 22 years a Slave, 40 years a Freeman

Austin Steward (1793-1869) was a former slave, abolitionist and businessman in Upstate New York, and known as the author of the autobiographical slave narrative Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman.

He was born in 1793 to enslaved parents in Virginia, but when he was a child (ca. 8 years old) their master, Captain William Helm, sold his plantation due to financial problems and moved to Bath in Upstate New York. Austin was hired out to other employers because Helm needed money. He taught himself to read and was flogged when he was caught, which encouraged him even more to educate himself.

As he learned more, he started to question the legality of his slave status. Around 1813, when he was ca. 21 years old, he escaped, worked as a farmhand in Canandaigua, and went to school in Farmington. In 1815, he was found by his master, but with help from the New York Manumission Society, he could secure his freedom based on the Gradual Emancipation Law and the fact that his master had hired him out.

After living sometime in Bath, and having the privilege of more enlightened society, I began to think that it was possible for me to become a free man in some way besides going into the army or running away, as I had often thought of doing. I had listened to the conversation of others, and determined to ask legal counsel on the subject the first opportunity I could find … I determined to become my own possessor … There is no one, I care not how favorable his condition, who desires to be a slave, to labor for nothing all his life for the benefit of others. I have often heard fugitive slaves say, that it was not so much the cruel beatings and floggings that they received which induced them to leave the South, as the idea of dragging out a whole life of unrequited toil to enrich their masters. Everywhere that Slavery exists, it is nothing but slavery. I found it just as hard to be beaten over the head with a piece of iron in New York as it was in Virginia.
Austin Steward, 1857: Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman

Around 1817, Austin Steward moved to Rochester, where he established a grocery business. Defying hostility from white residents, his business flourished over the next years. Austin taught also Sabbath school and married Patience Butler, with whom he had several children, who all died young.

On July 5, 1827, when slavery in New York State finally ended, Rochester’s black population selected him to hold their Emancipation Day speech. Steward became Rochester’s subscription agent for the abolitionist newspapers Freedom’s Journal and the Rights of All and became more and more active in the anti-slavery movement, especially meetings and conventions. In 1830, he was appointed vice-president of the first black national convention. In 1831, Austin Steward went to Canada to help organize the Wilberforce Colony, a settlement of free blacks from Ohio, where he and his wife Patience had 2 more daughters, Susan, who also died young, and Barbara Ann Steward (1836-1861), who became a teacher and anti-slavery activist.

The colony failed due to mismanagement, conflict, embezzlement, and lack of funding. In 1837, the Stewards returned to Rochester almost destitute, but in 1842, his business was destroyed by a fire and he went back to Canandaigua, where he worked as a teacher. He served as president of New York State black conventions in 1840, 1841, and 1845. With advancing age, he chaired local meetings, worked as Canandaigua’s subscription agent for the National Anti-Slavery Standard.

In 1857, Austin Steward wrote and published his autobiography Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman. Even though it sold well, he had to return to Rochester to sell his narrative and obtain financial aid from friends when his daughter Barbara became terminally ill with Typhoid fever in 1860. She died in 1861, only 24-25 years old. Austin, died on February 15, 1869.

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