African American Slave Narratives: An Anthology - Vol. 3

By Sterling Lecater Bland Jr. | Go to book overview
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13

AUSTIN STEWARD
(1793?–?)

TWENTY-TWO YEARS A SLAVE, AND FORTY YEARS A FREEMAN

As the title of his narrative suggests, Austin Steward’s account primarily concerns itself with his experiences following his departure from the South in 1801 or 1802. Steward’s departure from the South did not conform to the more conventional pattern of physical and emotional exploitation leading to an adventurous escape to the North. Steward’s owner, Captain William Helm, served as Steward’s conduit north when he decided to pay off his debts by selling his plantation and relocating himself and his slaves to the western area of upstate New York.

It was clearly a reprieve for Steward to be taken from the South’s system of plantations and repressive black codes. His movement to New York also provided him with the benefit of legal protection. Although New York did not fully abolish slavery until 1827, the state instituted a policy of gradual emancipation between 1799 and 1807 that allowed slave owners to free their slaves in writing. In this less-repressive environment, Steward became aware of a law that allowed slaves to petition for a kind of independent status on the basis of a law prohibiting owners to sell or hire out slaves brought into the state after June 1, 1785. In Fish vs. Fisher, a case litigated in 1800, the courts upheld that law and handed down an opinion that interpreted hiring out as an attempt to evade the law. Steward successfully asserted his independence in 1815 on the basis of that interpretation and, at age twenty-two, began to hire himself out.

The middle portion of his narrative focuses on Steward’s attempts to establish his grocery business in Rochester, New York. Steward began his business in September 1817. His initial years were difficult. He notes that “there were butchers in the village who appeared to be unwilling that I should have any

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