Austin Steward Historical Marker Dedication Presentation
A new roadside historical marker was unveiled at a ceremony on Saturday, October 22, 2022. WARE members, Earl Greene and Jim Wood, spoke at the event at the invitation of Rosa Fox, Town of Huron Historian, who led the historic marker project. The following text contains the updated notes used by Dr. Wood to deliver his talk. The marker can be visited at 9744 Ridge Road at Jim Thomas’ farm.
I remember when Rosa Fox and Tom Lightfoot, the late Village of Sodus Point Historian attended a program a few years ago to commemorate Austin Steward in Canandaigua where he is buried in the West Avenue Cemetery. At the end of the program, Rosa, Tom, and I talked about the importance of making a historic marker to be installed at the foot of Sodus Bay in Huron to recognize Mr. Steward’s time as a slave clearing trees at this very spot, we are standing on today. And here it is, about to be unveiled. Thankyou, Rosa. Rosa has asked me, as a member of Wayne Action for Racial Equality(WARE) to talk about what significance Mr. Steward’s life has for our current times. After I finish speaking, WARE President, Earl Greene will conclude with his remarks.
I am so glad that Rosa has asked us to speak. Remembering and honoring Austin Steward is important for many reasons. I will speak to one: the importance of telling historical truths. As we stand here, there are people who, both locally and nationally, have been attacking the teaching of historical truth to our school children. For example, right across these waters sits the Sodus Central School District. Throughout this past academic year, WARE’s week-long anti-racism workshop for the teachers of Wayne County has been consistently under attack at Sodus’ monthly schoolboard meetings. This attack of the professional development workshop has taken place despite receiving outstanding evaluation reviews from those who have taken it for each of the last five years. Why was the workshop attacked? Its attackers claimed that it advanced Critical Race Theory (CRT) and embraced The New York Times 1619 Project and by doing so shamed our school children. I am pleased to teach that workshop with Pastor Earl Greene, who is with us today and Danielle Ohlson, a Newark High School English teacher. I am happy to say that the Sodus School Board resisted the efforts to ban the workshop by unanimously supporting its continuation this past summer. You might wonder what Austin Steward has to do with anti-racism teaching. If you are, I am about to tell you.
I will use my talk to give you an idea of how uplifting, not shameful, the previously obscure (and until recently) hidden life of an African American hero is. Lessons dedicated to people like Steward are just the kinds of lessons we should be teaching in our classrooms. Throughout his life, Austin Steward fought against racism, slavery and discrimination with his whole being. Mr. Steward wrestled with the trials and tribulations of racism and used his resilience, capacity to network with others and compassion to persevere, overcome and succeed. A lesson about this exemplar of truth and justice has a special potential anti-racism message that can motivate and inspire all students no matter their age, color or ethnicity.
In any lesson about Austin Steward, it would be the height of hypocrisy to ignore the fact that he was a victim of extreme and diabolical structural racism. It is our duty to inform our students that Austin was born a slave and henceforth was codified by his skin color as inferior. This act of slavery that denied Mr. Steward his freedom was not just an act of individual racism inflicted upon young Austin by Captain Helms, it was a racism that was structured by Federal and New York State law. The full systemic power of state apparatus enforced the code of slavery. But he like so many before him and so many after him, Black, Brown and White resisted that inheritance.
He resisted in three ways. First, with his character. Second, with his pursuit of learning. Third, with his willingness to serve others.
Let’s look at his character:
One thing is clear, he always asserted his humanity. We see the traits of his character even during his enslavement resiliency, determination, resourcefulness, courage and insightful intelligence. To teach the Austin Steward lessons, I would turn to his own memoir, Twenty Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman to illuminate that character.
- Look around you, brush away the barn over there, all the houses and outbuildings on both sides of Sodus Bay. Allow your mind to erase the bridge you just drove across. In the early 19 century, when Steward toiled in enslavement right here clearing this land for Captain William Helm it was no easy task for any wage. But remember he was forced to labor for free. And yet his will to survive emerges on the pages of his memoirand the story of his life as a successful freeman. His book is a primaryocument that I would use to teach the school children on the east side of the bay in Sodus or here on the west side where his marker is installed in the North Rose-Wolcott School District. New York State requires teachers to teach their students to back up their opinions and historical writing with facts. Students are taught how to read and analyze such primary documents as Steward’s non-fiction memoir. Books like Twenty Years a Slave written prior to the Civil War were critical to the abolitionist movement. They came to be known as slave narratives. They effectively chronicled the horror of slavery in personal terms. We are fortunate to learn about Mr. Steward’s laudable resilience against such horror right here on the land we are standing upon. So, you better believe, I would expose our school children to Austin Steward’s resilience. It is an inspiration for all children, all ethnicities, and cultural identities.
- Dreaming of overcoming his conditions, he imagined a new life that he would eventually win through guile and courage, so we note his determination. In fact, we find he was not the only one with intelligence & resourcefulness. It was something he shared with his enslaved comrades. I would be a poor teacher if I didn’t use Mr. Steward’s own words to make my anti-racism lessons come alive. He makes my job easy by the story he tells. To inspire students to embrace teamwork, I would use Austin’s story of how Captain Helm and a few slaves set out to resupply the work encampment when provisions ran too low to sustain their work in the wilderness surrounding the bay. The group of slaves and the captain procured a boat by traveling over land to the small gathering of buildings at the mouth of the bay. They ventured out on the big lake without knowledge of the maritime skills necessary for a successful voyage and turned down the lake westward toward the Genesee when a storm interjected itself and blew them to Canada. When Captain Helm proved incapable of guiding the boat in the storm, one of his slaves took command of the boat to guide it to safe harbor in Canada. The group had to spend all their capital just to get back to Sodus Bay. Upon their return, they joined Austin and the remaining slaves without sustenance. Through shear pluck and determination, they worked together to survive until provisions could eventually be secured to prevent widespread starvation of the whole crew in this wilderness spot. Can you feel the potential to motivate and inspire students with Austin’s Steward’s experience with his fellow laborers? As a teacher, It is my job to teach the truth and help our students learn to do historically accurate research by using primary documents when available. Once again, thank you Mr. Steward for demonstrating the power of survival strategies, teamwork and courage. So, you better believe, I would expose our school children to Austin Steward’s experiences with his fellow partners in bondage, because it is epitomized by their determination and resourcefulness supported by teamwork. It is a beacon of hope for all children, all ethnicities, and cultural identities.
- Students can fact check these stories because, remember, Austin Steward shared them in his book, Twenty Years a Slave, Forty Years a Free Man. You can look them up to. More importantly, Mr. Steward didn’t just write based on his subjective memory, he relied on letters sent and received throughout his life. He included the letters and other items of examples of the truth of his story because he had to provide primary evidence to convince his readers that he was not spinning tall tales. Of course, the book is a shining example of Stewart’s intelligence. He wrote it long after his escape from enslavement in 1814. He was not freed from his bondage. He escaped. Let me say that again he escaped just one year after New York passed a law ending slavery. What, you say? That doesn’t make any sense. Why would he have to escape after he was set free? Let me explain. New York’s 1813 law abolishing slavery was itself structured in the systemic racism of the time. It was written to end slavery immediately only for those people born after its passage, but for those already enslaved, the law was to be phased in over the next twenty years. This gradual process was purposely designed to protect enslavers “investments” in their commodities, their slaves. For the enslaved, like Austin, the law was not a refreshing wave ride to freedom but a tortuous slog that would delay his freedom for an agonizing 20 years. What was a freedom seeker like Steward to do? What would you do? By the time of the law’s passage, Captain Helms had taken his enslaved people including Mr. Steward to Bath, New York. In Bath, true to his insightful intelligence, Austin consulted with an expert in the manumission process to figure out where he stood in this legal morass. He learned that he could still be enslaved for decades. Facing this tragedy, Austin took the matter into his own hands and broke to freedom within a year. He was having none of the gradual emancipation trap. He hatched a plan and escaped. Such an act was dangerous, potentially deadly, because he had few rights should he be caught. And even after escape, did Mr. Steward immediately acquire all the rights of a free man at that moment? No, he did not. In furthering the cause of historical truth telling, I would teach my students that Mr.Steward would continue to encounter both individual and systemic racism throughout his life. For a full understanding of the system Mr. Steward faced upon seizing his freedom, I would have my students study the facts. Paramount among those facts would be that for the next fifty years the New York legislature & the majority of voters blocked most free Black men from voting by requiring Black men to own property valued at $250 or more. As you can imagine, this was a gargantuan amount to a former slave. Telling Austin Steward’s life story, however, gives me a chance to teach my students about the difficulties faced by the recently free like Mr. Steward. He was destitute and continuously discriminated against. It wasn’t until the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed that the property requirement law was eliminated in New York. We know that Steward was courageously fighting this injustice with all his might as were most of his Black brothers & sisters. I would have my students study how friends and abolitionist colleagues, both Black and white, helped formerly enslaved people get on their feet. Of course, I would also have them study how Black women and their White sisters had to fight another sixty years for their right to vote as well as the racial tensions that the women’s suffrage movement endured. So, you better believe, I would expose our children to Austen Steward’s commitment to end his enslavement and seize freedom by using his courage. It cannot be minimized. With his illegal act he struck a blow against the evil of slavery and joined every New York freedom seeker in attacking the very structure of systemic racism.
- One more story of his intuitive intelligence is worth telling. The enslaved and the enslaver were tethered to each other in an unequal bond. Many escaped from William Helms grasp. Apparently enraged by his dwindling prospects and estate, the captain hatched a plan to recapture his wealth. He invited his formerly enslaved workers to a “reunion”. Instead of a gracious gesture, this was a plot to lure Austin’s family and fellow former slaves into a trap so that they could captured, transported south, and sold back into slavery. By now, it should come as no surprise to you, and hopefully to my students, that Austin Steward was too smart for Captain Helm. He refused to attend but could not convince others. When the event took place, Helms sprung the trap. As Austin tells it, a terrible fight ensued that resulted in his own father’s death. So, you better believe, I would expose our children to Austen Steward’s insightful intelligence. As they further study his life, they will see that he used it to become Rochester’s first Black business owner as well as other endeavors.
Now, let’s look at his pursuit of education:
Austen Steward was not content with his self-taught literacy; he takes classes even though he would be in class with others half his age. He then uses his new skills to build successful businesses in Canandaigua and Rochester. So you better believe, I would expose our children to Austen Steward’s quest for education which took its own form of bravery and perseverance to achieve.
And, thirdly, let’s add to character and pursuit of education a look at Austin Steward’s passion to serve his fellow humans:
Fifteen years after he freed himself, he left his business success behind to do use his character and apply his education to serve freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad and by writing and speaking for the abolition of slavery. He worked with White and Black Abolitionists, networking to advance the oppressed. He spoke, he traveled, and he strategized. We find he was a contributor at the inaugural Colored Convention in 1830 in Philadelphia which spawned seventy years of foundational Black networking. The networking, in turn, led to the creation of many twentieth century Black organizations that fought and continue to fight for racial justice.
The very next year, in 1830, Austin joined this newly emerging network to aid freedom seeking fugitive slaves by helping to set up the fledgling Wilberforce Colony in Canada as its President. The Wilberforce Colony endeavor was created to support Black people fleeing, not just the southern slave states, but northern racism as well. Most directly, the Wilberforce Colony in Canada was a response to the Ohio Black Codes and anti-Black rioting in Cincinnati.
So you better believe, I would expose our children to Austen Steward’s compassion for others and his work for racial justice. Austen Steward did not run from risk. He did not allow himself the complacency of comfort. He reached out a hand. He risked his hard-earned assets.
What is the sum of Austin Steward’s life journey and why is it important to teach anti-racism lessons for our students?
When he saw slim opportunity for freedom, he fought for it.
When he had nothing, he worked with his Black and White neighbors to build that nothing into something.
When he saw others who had been shackled by oppression in the same way as he had been, he fought to destroy their shackles.
When I hear the ideology that teaching the truth of systemic and personal racism that heroic patriots like Austen Stewart dedicated their lives to overcoming shames our children, I say simply, “That ideology is wrong. Exposing the history of racism and telling its story is the opposite.” As for causing shame, I say, “That claim is a sham. We don’t own the past and our ancestors’ wrongdoings are not ours to carry. Teaching the truth of stories like Mr. Steward’s is the opposite. Such teaching is anti-racist-it strikes a blow to racism. It is uplifting, not depressing. It is motivating, not discouraging.”
We must learn from the past not be shamed by it. We must say: I learned the truth. I recognize racism and its impact around me today, but I am better than that. I look at Austen Steward’s example of bravery, resilience, compassion, determination, and human decency in the face of racism and, like him, I say, “I will teach truth to forge a better world.”
So today, I thank Rosa and all those who helped her add another chapter to Austin Steward’s legacy with this marker.
But most of all, I thank you Austin Steward. May your spirit uplift everyone who reads this marker and learns about you. May they ponder the gift of your life as a social justice and anti-racist hero and a beacon of moral & physical courage for every student to follow.