Austin Steward (1794-1869)
The Life of Austin Steward
Austin Steward was born a slave in Virginia and moved to New York with his owners aged seven. He secretly taught himself to read and was beaten for it. Because New York was then becoming a free state, he ran away from his owner to another town when he was 21.
After taking classes to increase his education, he established himself as a successful merchant in the town of Rochester, and acquired property. On 5 July 1827, the day of the final emancipation of slaves in New York, he gave a speech which was covered in the press.
To escape racism in the United States, in 1831 he joined the black settlement of Wilberforce in Upper Canada (now Ontario) and became one of its leaders. It had been founded two years earlier by a group of African Americans from Cleveland, Ohio. He was soon disappointed by the mismanagement and economic struggles of Wilberforce and returned to Rochester in 1837, but could not repeat his earlier success in business. He published his autobiography 20 years later.
The Narrative of Austin Steward
Steward’s narrative Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman (1857) is mostly about his life in freedom, with only the first third telling the story of his years in slavery. The book is similar to other black memoirs of the time in describing racial segregation, economic exploitation, and racist violence.
Steward’s account combines his personal development with that of the Wilberforce colony. His philanthropic and political agenda differed from the financial motives of many other settlers. Being appointed as a township clerk, a respected public office, made him feel that the Canadian government recognized the value and abilities of African Canadians.
The text echoes the popular North American immigration guide genre, praising the aesthetic and economic appeal of Canada, with its rivers, forests, and fertile soil. Steward details the residents’ social, political and judicial concerns and reiterates the United States’ national founding myth of freedom and hard work creating prosperity for immigrants to prosper.
But Steward deviates from the immigrant guide discourse by emphasising the difficulties of the black American immigrants in Canada, many of whom had only recently escaped slavery. He tells how they faced not only the tasks of establishing themselves as farmers, skilled workers, or businesspeople but also encountered white racism in their surroundings. Nonetheless, Steward’s text also Canada as a place where fugitives from American slavery could become successful settlers and obtain citizenship.
Sources and Further Reading
There are several editions of Steward’s narrative. A scholarly edition is this one:
- Steward, Austin. Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman. 1857. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004.
An online edition accessible for free is this one:
- Steward, Austin. Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman; Embracing a Correspondence of Several Years, While President of Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West. Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1857. Available at: https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/steward/menu.html
Selected Research Literature
- Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of African American Autobiography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
- Bird, Eleanor Lucy. Canada and Slavery in Print, 1789-1889. Phil.Diss., University of Sheffield, 2018. Leeds, Sheffield, and York: White Rose eTheses Online, 2018. Bird_Diss
- Kang, Nancy. “‘As if I had Entered a Paradise’: Fugitive Slave Narratives and Cross-Border Literary History.” African American Review 39.3 (2005): 431-457.
- Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. Introduction to Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman by Austin Steward. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004. ix-xv.
- Sawallisch, Nele. Fugitive Borders: Black Canadian Cross-Border Literature at Mid-Nineteenth Century. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2019.
- Siemerling, Winfried. The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2015.
Online Sources and Links
- Freeman, Chester. “Austin Steward – A man of integrity.” Life in the Finger Lakes, 2016. https://www.lifeinthefingerlakes.com/austin-steward-a-man-of-integrity/
- Fox, Rosa. “Austin Steward – From enslavement to entrepreneur and social reform leader.” Historic Huron, 2019. http://www.historichuron.org/__trashed-2/
Speeches and Journalism:
- In 1863, Steward gave a speech reflecting on the previously accepted economic practice of slavery and what potential for change was now available for all U.S. citizens now that it was terminated. https://libraries.udmercy.edu/archives/special-collections/index.php?collectionCode=baa&record_id=2441