Working for Higher Education: Advancing Black Women’s Rights in the 1850s

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 famed abolitionist and former slave Austin Steward and his wife Patience Steward. Steward was formally educated and began her activism at the young age of seventeen as the secretary for the 1853 Geneva, New York Colored Convention 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]

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.[3] Steward also helped represent a fugitive slave in western New York, for which she received public praise.[4] 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.[5] Sadly, Barbara Steward passed away from typhoid in December 1861.[6] Steward contributed a lively voice to the debate for industrial schools as well as the fight for abolition.


[1] “Convention at Geneva,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 16 December 1853.
[2] “The Industrial School,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 1 June 1855.
[3] “Meeting of Colored Citizens in Rochester,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 21 September 1855.
[4] “A New Advocate,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 19 October 1855.

[5] “Great State Celebration,” The Liberator, 31 July 1857.
[6] C. Peter Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, vol. 1 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 64.


Written by Rosa Pleasant, History 213 taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 2016.

Edited by Simone Austin, University of Delaware.