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FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER AND THE COLORED CONVENTIONS

BARBARA ANN STEWARD

Advocating for industrial education, Barbara Ann Steward (also spelled Stewart) was a strong political voice during the 1850s. Born around 1836 in Canada, Steward was the daughter of anti-slavery activists Austin Steward and Patience Steward. Steward was formally educated and began her activism at the young age of seventeen as the secretary for the 1853 Colored Convention held in Geneva, New York, where her father acted as president. She spoke at the convention and was commended.

Evidence suggests that Steward was active in the creation of the Western New York auxiliary to the National Council of Colored People.[1] Steward’s visibility escalated in 1855 with a published letter to Frederick Douglass that stressed the need for an industrial college. Steward believed that education as “a mere knowledge of books, without a trade of some kind is useless, as the colored people are situated now.” Finding a lack of understanding about the purpose of industrial colleges, Steward wrote this letter to rectify others’ misconceptions.[2] As Samantha de Vera writes, “Steward challenged Black male leaders’ ideas and accused them of being out of touch with the less privileged and the abysmal state of Black education. She, in order words, tested Black leaders’ acceptance of women’s forceful presence in the political sphere. Steward’s defiance of male leadership would inform the 1855 Troy convention delegates’ decision to deny her delegacy.”[3] At the Colored Convention held in Troy, New York, Stewart attended only to have her name “stricken out from the roll” because “several gentlemen objecting to it on the ground that this is not a Woman’s Rights Convention.”[4] Stewart’s struggle for active inclusion in the Colored Conventions movement was not unique. Mary Ann Shadd Cary would later confront a similar problem, as delegates assumed that Black women’s concerns were limited to women’s rights. They thus diminished their activism as one sided, ignoring how Black women saw the importance and urgency of addressing both sexism and racism. 

In 1855, Steward lectured throughout upstate New York. Addressing the meeting of Colored Citizens in Rochester, Steward delivered a speech focusing on the “The Rights and Wrongs of her suffering people,” that garnered her an invitation to speak again.[5] Steward also helped represent a freedom seeker in western New York, for which she received public praise.[6] Steward remained a prominent figure in the late 1850s as she joined the public celebration of the British emancipation, reading the Act of Emancipation, which was followed by addresses from Fredrick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet.[7] Sadly, Barbara Steward passed away from typhoid in December 1861.[8] Steward’s efforts to carve a place for herself in activist circles constituted a feminist thread that connects her other Black women in the Colored Conventions movement. 

 

REFERENCES

[1] “Convention at Geneva,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 16 December 1853.

[2] “The Industrial School,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 1 June 1855.

[3] de Vera, Samantha. “Black Women in Antebellum Colored Conventions.” Ending Slavery: The Antislavery Struggle in Perspective, edited by Lawrence Aje and Claudine Raynaud, Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2022, pp. 61–81.

[4] Colored Men’s State Convention of New York (1855 : Troy, NY), “Colored Men’s State Convention of New York, Troy, September 4, 1855.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed February 22, 2023, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/238.

[5] “Meeting of Colored Citizens in Rochester,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 21 September 1855.

[6] “A New Advocate,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 19 October 1855.

[7] “Great State Celebration,” The Liberator, 31 July 1857.

[8] C. Peter Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, vol. 1 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 64.

 

CREDITS

Written by Rosa Pleasant, History 213 taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 

2016.

Revised by Samantha de Vera.

Edited by Simone Austin, University of Delaware.