Explore Rochester’s Lower Falls.

For over a year now I have been been exploring, researching and sharing the beautiful area known in Rochester as the Lower Falls Gorge. This somewhat hidden treasure is waiting to be experienced by anyone who loves the outdoors and cares about our national history. To schedule a class and/or hike with the Lower Falls Foundation, call us directly at 585-703-9230.

George Payne, Co-Founder



Musician Turned Climate Justice Activist Inspires Mothers Everywhere to Join the Front Lines

Meet Abby. If she wanted to she could become one of the most sought after cello instructors in the region. If she wanted to she could earn a cozy job at a prestigious music conservatory. If you ask me, Abby could do just about anything that she sets her mind to do.

Abigail McHugh- Grifa in the Rochester Free Radio studio. This was her second time appearing on the Broken Spear Vision to talk about climate change activism
Thankfully for the rest of us who are not aspiring to master the sounds of Bach, Abby has chosen a different path.She will always be a musician at heart; but these days she is all about helping to save the planet by combating climate change. Rather than stay on the sidelines moaning and groaning about the worsening conditions of planet Earth, Abby is on the front lines trying to do something about it. And she is not just signing petitions and posting memes on Facebook. Like all genuine activists committed to their cause, she has put her money where her mouth is by engaging in nonviolent civil resistance.
Digital photograph by George Payne
On May 7 of 2015, Abby and thirty other Finger Lakes/Rochester residents rallied along Route 14, holding signs and banners with Mother’s Day messages and decrying fossil fuel build-out as a direct threat to their children. In the face of broad public opposition, Crestwood’s methane gas storage expansion project was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. With unresolved questions about geological instabilities, fault lines, and possible salinization of Seneca Lake, which serves as a source of drinking water for 100,000 people, the company continues to expand its plan to develop.
IMG_20140921_234649 (1)
New York City People’s Climate March in 2014. Photo by George Payne.


In protest, Abby was arrested and transported to the Schuyler County Sheriff’s department, charged with trespassing, and released.

During the arrest Abby, who was 35 at the time, said to a reporter, “I have a 16-month old son and I’m pregnant. If I’m going to create life, it’s my responsibility to protect it too. I’m very concerned about the climate and for my children’s future. The more money we invest in fossil fuel infrastructure, the deeper we dig ourselves in.  I want to do what I can to speed the transition to renewables. So, I’m here doing what I can.”

That about sums up the attitude Abby brings to everything she does. She may not be solving global warming by getting arrested, but it is the best she can do. It may not shut down Crestwod, but at least she is out there making her voice heard. Is it better than playing a cello and teaching at a university? I am guessing that this question is irrelevant to her. This is what she is called to do. She is out there risking her comfort and security not because it is easy and enjoyable, but because it is what the situation demands of her. She is doing it because she is a mother and her children need her to be vocal on their behalf.

Sixteen Mothers and Grandmothers Arrested in Blockade at Crestwood Midstream



mother day mother out front
“We Are Seneca Lake” Mother’s Day Action at Crestwood Midstream Facility in the Town of Reading. Abigail was arrested for protesting natural gas storage on Seneca Lake on May 7, 2015.

Remarkably, Abby continues her professional life as a music instructor with The Eastman Community Music School (ECMS), which was founded in 1921 by industrialist and philanthropist George Eastman (1854-1932), founder of the Eastman Kodak Company. The Eastman Community Music School is a part of the world renowned Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester, and is a centerpiece of George Eastman’s grand vision of the power of music to enrich life. This is evidenced in the words carved on the front of the Eastman Theatre “for the enrichment of community life.” According to their website, the school is

 “Located on the campus of the Eastman School of Music, the ECMS has been educating residents of the Greater Rochester and Western NY State area for more than ninety years. We estimate that as many as 60,000 students have received music instruction at the school since its inception. The school is deeply embedded in the community and is one of the most important connections between Eastman, the University of Rochester and the residents of the extended area.


Grace Lee Boggs, the inimitable and prolific social justice activist from Detroit, once said, “The physical threat posed by climate change represents a crisis that is not only material but also profoundly spiritual at its core because it challenges us to think seriously about the future of the human race and what it means to be a human being.”


abigail mchugh grifa

Abigail McHugh Grifa playing the cello

Abby has responded to Boggs charge. Sure, there may be other ways that she could be spending her waking hours. After all, two little boys is enough to keep some mothers occupied 24/7. And this is probably not the career that she envisioned for herself when she was studying music education at Eastman. But it’s the life that she has signed up for because she knows that it is not just her life that matters. Abby is not the type of person to say let someone else do the heavy lifting. If there is a problem to be solved-even if it is a bewilderingly complex problem like climate change-she wants to help figure it out. She is a problem solver, pure and simple.




Abigail and the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition

One project that has consumed Abby’s time lately is the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition (RPCC), a network of diverse organizations unified around concerns about climate change. As she explained during our interview, RPCC includes businesses, faith groups, nonprofits, labor, media, civil servants, and others. Although she did not go into detail about the organization’s methods, she did mention that they include climate change legislation, education, and mitigation, and working with the media to amplify the message.

Formed in September 2014, RPCC continues to grow, collaborate, and build political will for climate action. (For a full list of member organizations and information on how to join the coalition, see here.) As she puts it, the mission of The Rochester People’s Climate Coalition addresses the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of global warming. The groups has four major goals:

  1. Build a major force for change that will influence legislators to pass meaningful climate action laws
  2. Educate the general public about man-made global warming and mobilize them for direct action
  3. Encourage local leaders to take steps to prepare our region for the future effects of climate change (e.g., update transportation and utilities infrastructure)
  4. Leverage our collective power to encourage local media to improve their coverage of climate-related issues

Abby also gave me a brief overview of the history of RPCC. It was formed in 2014 during the weeks leading up to the People’s Climate March, when 30+ organizations in the Greater Rochester Area joined together to voice support for the march and demand action on climate change.  Over a period of several months following the march, representatives from member organizations worked together to define the coalition’s mission, goals, and structure.

Shortly after the historic march, RPCC’s second big project took place in April 2015, when member organizations collaborated to organize 15 “Earth Week” events, including several public appearances by renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen.  Collectively, these events served to raise awareness about climate change and move local leaders and citizens to action.


Abby leading a climate justice march in Rochester, NY (Photo by George Payne)

From the looks of it, RPCC is garnering some impressive accolades from both local and national leaders in the climate justice movement. On their website, the group has been endorsed by author and influential environmentalist Bill McKibben, ecologist and activist Sandra Steingraber, NASA scientist and climate change whistle blower James Hansen, and U.S. Rep Louise Slaughter. RPCC Facebook

Tune in to Rochester Free Radio 106.3 FM every Sunday at 12:30 PM to hear social justice voices from the Rochester community.

In addition to her role as a Leadership Team member with RPCC, Abby has continued her involvement with the Rochester Chapter of Citizen Climate Lobby. CCL lobbies in support of a Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal by building friendly relationships with federally elected representatives. They aim to reach across the aisle with respect, appreciation and gratitude for the service of elected officials.

During our interview, she explained that CCL writes letters to the editor and op-eds, and meets with editorial boards to gain their editorial endorsement.They also facilitate presentations and table at events to promote CCL and introduce others to the Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal.

Basically, CCL believes that politicians don’t create political will, they respond to it. Moreover, they contend that citizens who are well-trained, organized by Congressional district and with a good system of support can influence the political process. Based on what climate scientists and economists say, members of CCL argue that the Carbon Fee and Dividend plan is the best first step to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate. Not only is Abby active with CCL. she has assumed a leadership position in the chapter and has traveled to Washington to lobby.

Author Elizabeth Kolbert once write: “Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.”

I think of Abby when I read this. She is someone who, without quite meaning to, chose a different evolutionary pathway. As a result, she is opening new doors while managing to leave old ones open. It is an amazing moment that we find ourselves in. I am glad that we have amazing people like Abby to match the moment. I am honored to have her as a guest on the Broken Spear Vision.

Trump’s Campaign Has Been Like Hydrogen Peroxide to the GOP


“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” —Twitter, 2012

“There has to be some form of punishment” [for women who seek abortions] — MSNBC forum, 2016

“Well, someone’s doing the raping, Don! I mean, somebody’s doing it. Who’s doing the raping? Who’s doing the raping?” — responding to questions about his comments regarding Latino immigrants and rape, “CNN Tonight” , 2015

 By an accident of chance or providential deliverance, the real estate mogul turned presidential candidate has fortunately decided to latch onto the skin of the Republican Party like a parasitic ringworm. Yet rather than cause an infection which was absent before his invasion, Trump has merely exposed a multitude of infections which have been festering within the biochemistry of the GOP for decades. Without question, all of the following diseases are communicable and have existed within the Democratic Party throughout it’s tenure; but the presence of racism, white supremacy, elitism, materialism, nationalism, militarism, religious fundamentalism, patriarchy, greed, environmental degradation, and anti-intellectual self righteousness have been, over the past 75 years, far more prevalent within the GOP. 

Our planet is getting hotter and sicker everyday

Rather than mask this perverse condition from plain sight- as Republicans have been trained and accustomed to do for years- Trump has forced these infections to bubble to the surface like ejaculating spurts of puss.

To employ another metaphor from the world of medicine, Trump has been like hydrogen peroxide to the Republican Party. As an antiseptic his idiotic outbursts and outrageous sound bites have actually served to undermine the bacteria of these isms by further dismantling their cell walls. Trump’s campaign, in all of its lewdness and imbecility, has worked in a similar way that the process of oxidation works: that is to say, because the GOP’s oxygen atoms, i.e., it’s legit status as a party of real ideas and practical solutions, is incredibly reactive, they are forced to attract, or steal, ideas and answers from other parties. With fewer ideas of their own, the bacteria cells’ walls become damaged or even completely break apart. This decay and dissolution has been going on for some time; but like hydrogen peroxide, Trump’s explosive rhetoric has forced all of the infection to come out at once into the fresh air of public scrutiny. 

Consequently, if you are a Republican today, it is impossible to remain neutral. You are either for Trump or against Trump. This declaration of conscience is the same as being either for women’s rights or against women’s rights, or being for Latinos or against them. These are truly either or decisions. Trump’s uncontrollable mouth and impetuous tweets have forced every card carrying member of Lincoln’s lost party to make a stand in front of the world. Trump has made it impossible for Republicans to stay quiet.

“A Sick Man” A colored pencil and pen drawing by George Payne

Tragically, hydrogen peroxide’s oxidation also destroys healthy skin cells. Regardless of his intended audience, the inherently toxic nature of Trump’s positions causes damage to everyone who comes into contact with them. Each time the billionaire tycoon demeans a person of color, he is inducing a certain sickness into our citizenry. Each time he belittles a disabled person and objectifies women and girls, our nation’s immune system is weakened a little bit more. This is why hydrogen peroxide should not be used to clean wounds; it has been found to slow the healing process and possibly worsen scarring by killing the healthy cells surrounding a cut. What has been healing for the Republicans, has turned out to have a poisoning effect on the general population.

“Infected Cells”      Digitally altered painting by George Payne

 Oddly enough, despite its negative effect on healthy cells, our bodies’ cells naturally produce hydrogen peroxide when we metabolize food and turn it into energy. If I may carry this metaphor as far as it can possibly go, perhaps one of the most important and lasting questions from the 2016 election will be: How can a cell produce something that can destroy its own walls?


The Collected Donald Trump: 107 of his worst, weirdest, and most outrageous quotes

Rochester skyline by George Payne

A revised version of this blog posted in the Minority Reporter

Syria Through a Fractal Prism: Conversations on War and Peace with Judy Bello

There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare. Sun Tzu


Latest Broken Spear Vision interview with Judy Bello

I just finished another radio podcast with Judy Bello, a Middle East political analyst and longtime anti-war activist in Rochester. Judy recently came back from a fact finding civilian peace delegation to Syria, where she had the rare opportunity to talk with people on the street about what is really happening to their beloved country. In her blog she recounts many of these human interactions while placing the war in a larger geopolitical context. Judy reports:

“Yesterday we visited a program run by the Syria Development Trust for women who are head of family. This is mostly due to the death or loss of a spouse. The women learn to sew and are then assisted in finding jobs. Mostly they are very young and very pleased with the opportunity. The program includes daycare and literacy classes for those who want them. The program does not differentiate which side the missing husbands were on. The candidates are vetted according to their personal situation and whether they are deemed ready to successfully complete the program.”

Photo by George Payne

Later on that day she visited an orphanage for the children of soldiers killed in the line of duty.

“The school is a boarding school though those students who wish to do so and can do so may visit their mothers on the weekend and during the summer… The program goes from 3 months old to those ready to graduate to college or work. There were 40 students in the program before the war. Now there are 750 girls and 500 boys. They have had to radically expand their facilities. The facility is quite nice and the children receive counseling, material support and education.”

She concludes with an interesting encounter with the Mufti and the Bishop of Damascus, stating that both

“were wonderfully generous and charming. Their message was that Syrians are one people. Each man says he has 23,000,000 people  (the total population of Syria) under his care. They would like to come to the US together but the Mufti cannot get a visa and the Bishop doesn’t want to go without him.”

The Deconstructed Globe: Selected Views Through a Fractal Prism

I always appreciate Judy’s open and humane perspective. She cares deeply about the welfare of people who have suffered due to economic and political violence, and she is never afraid to speak her mind. I may not always agree with her assessment of certain political actors, but I never question her basic knowledge of the facts on the ground.

Broken Spear Vision podcasts are sponsored by Gandhi Earth Keepers International in Rochester, NY. gandhiearthkeepers.com

I also have tremendous admiration for her courage. How many United States civilians are packing their bags and heading to the war zones of Syrian cities and villages to discover what is actually going on? How many of your neighbors who have an opinion on Syria have talked to peasants, shopkeepers, aid workers, teachers, and various political officials living in places such as Damascus and Homs?

Agree or disagree with her analysis, Judy has the guts and tenacity to get real information in a way that very few people are.  As a result, she brings to these conversations an immense authenticity that I never take for granted. She does not just regurgitate some pundit’s talking points on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, she sacrifices the resources needed to travel to Syria in order to question the embattled leader face to face. For that reason alone she is an important journalistic voice in our local community. Don’t call her an Assad apologist. She is simply a damn good reporter.

Admittedly, what Judy has to report may not be easy for Americans to accept- at least not unconditionally. Mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN have told the American people that Assad gassed his own civilians, used cluster bombs on bakeries and schools, ordered a crack down on the nonviolent Arab Spring protests, and has been willing to trigger World War III to maintain autocratic control over a terrorized populace. Older charges include the imprisonment and torture of dissidents under the State of Emergency laws (dating back to 1963 during his father’s reign), and even the harboring of former Nazi officials. In the Western press he is portrayed as a hypocritical, obsessed, and vainglorious man who will stop at nothing to hold onto his fragile grip on power.


Judy is willing to explain how these accusations have been manufactured by outsiders with a vested interest in the collapse of Syria’s sovereign republic. But, in general, she is far more interested in discussing ways that Syria can achieve peace and reconciliation than focusing on the actions and legacies of individual politicians. She thinks that one of the major problems with the Syria issue is that it is so heavily focused on Assad in the press and so lacking in contextual coverage that we find ourselves in highly polarized conversations that distract from the answers to the questions like “what needs to be done to bring peace?”  As she puts it in one of her recent blogs:

“There are significant differences between the perspective presented by the Western press and that of the Syrians we met with this week. There is one I would like to point out, that was made very clear by everyone I met with during my stay here in Damascus. Syria is a sovereign country. It has a government which is doing its best to provide the services that governments provide including the provision of necessary resources and services to civilians including personal security which includes ethnic and religious tolerance and equality under the law. None of the forces at war with the government of Syria have demonstrated the capacity, or more importantly, the desire to provide these basic human and civil rights to the people of Syria… President Bashar Assad comes across as a well educated, progressive individual who is taking responsibility for providing for the people of his country who elected him by a significant majority, and leading a government which is attempting to respond to the issues that have caused civil unrest and discontent within that society while at the same time facing a vicious attack, funded, armed and manned by wealthy countries that have no civil rights and provide few social resources to their population. Not only is the government of Syria with their President doing their best to support the people of that country, but were he to leave, there would be no leadership in the fight against forces that oppose the values of the vast majority of Syrian people and are determined to tear the state apart.”

Die- in at Hancock Air Base near Syracuse, NY. Judy Bello is a longtime anti-war activist. She has helped organize several anti-drone vigils and rallies at the air base.                                   Photo by George Payne

Listening to Judy, it strikes me how there is no Good and Evil in war. There are only good people doing evil things to each other. War is not black and white. War makes the sky black with the white smoke of despair and makes the black night white with the heat of misery. In the end, war makes color, race, ethnicity and religion irrelevant by destroying everything in equal measure. A bullet does not care whether you are Sunni or Shiite. A bomb does not discriminate between Kurds and Alawites. The water from poisoned wells is sipped by both young and old. War has no boundaries. It inflicts suffering on the innocent and wicked alike.

Photo by George Payne

These philosophic musings aside, I am encouraged that Judy sees a path out of war. On her website The Deconstructed Globe.com, she describes many of the technical factors involved in achieving stability in this trauma stricken region. As usual, I am impressed by her thoughtful political observations and moved to action by her undaunted pragmatism. Like her, I hope for reconciliation and peace for the people of this ancient and majestic land. Moreover, I totally agree with her that anything is better than a complete breakdown of society. The last thing in the world the free people of Syria need is to be ruled by sadistic zealots in a Band State funded by extortion and other forms of gangster terrorism.

Still, the cynic in me does not believe that peace and reconciliation can happen until Bashar Assad is replaced. But what does that mean? Who would replace him and who would choose to elect his successor? Does the Middle East really need another puppet regime?  How exactly can there be reconciliation in Syria when Washington and Moscow are unable to work together? To my untrained eyes, it appears as if Syria is quickly unraveling into another Vietnam like quagmire i.e., a political conflict that disintegrated into an intractable proxy war between competing superpowers.


Logo by artist Jessie Benson

US Forces in Syria

From my blissful vantage point in cozy Rochester, NY, it looks like no side can prevail militarily or politically. There seems to be way too much incentive for the arms dealers and mercenaries of the world to resolve this crisis through a simple transfer of power. Just too many questions all together.  Who are the “rebels” and what do they ultimately stand for? Could Assad have survived without Russian intervention? What really happened at Tabqa Air Base? Has the United States targeted hospitals with drone strikes? Has the Syrian Army used thermite bombs? What are the true ambitions of nations such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran? Like the war itself, these questions seem bleak and endless.

Judy at a Black Lives Matter rally

A recent Broken Spear Vision podcast with Judy Bello

Although Judy does not pretend to have answers to all of these questions (and likely finds some of them outlandish),  I am grateful for her continued presence on the Broken Spear Vision.  We need her practical- on the ground- intelligence now more than ever. If we are unwilling to hear news that we find unconventional and unsatisfying, what good is news anyways? Why not just believe what you thought already and go about your day? But if you are looking to be genuinely informed and rightly disturbed, I invite you to check out our series of podcasts at www.rochesterfreeradio.com. This new station represents what it means to have a free and open press. Honestly, I fear that without community radio programs like RFR we are descending into a system in which independent voices like Judy Bello’s will be simply banned for contrasting with the official narrative. Not on my watch.

War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today. John F. Kennedy



Listen to Judy Bello’s interviews on the Broken Spear Vision at http://www.rochesterfreeradio.com

Austin Steward’s Account of Slavery Foreshadowed Trump’s Policies

Austin Steward

I moved to Rochester as an Adirondack transplant in 2000. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I am only now beginning to learn about the life and legacy of the great abolitionist and businessman Austin Steward who had his grocery store and Underground Railroad shelter on Main Street (site of the present day Clarion Riverside Hotel).

Fortunately I am making up for lost time by visiting the many landmarks in the Flower City devoted to a man who embodied resilience, determination, pragmatism, intelligence, and trustworthiness. Steward rose up from the hellish conditions of the Virginian plantation fields to become one of the most successful and admired entrepreneurs in western New York; he was also one of the greatest fighters for human dignity and civil freedom that this nation has ever known. In m many respects his gripping autobiography helped change the tide of public opinion against slavery during a very crucial time in the Abolitionist movement.

The narrative below derives from Austin Steward’s Twenty Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman, which was published in 1857. In his horrific testimony he described a system of state sanctioned terror that closely resembles the nightmarish policies which Donald Trump has been advocating on the campaign trail since early last year. I invite readers to listen to Steward’s description of slavery in the context of Mr. Trump’s proposed laws to investigate, apprehend, prosecute and expel millions of “illegals” from American territories. Is it any wonder that he has the emphatic pledge of people such as David Duke?

Slaves are never allowed to leave the plantation to which they belong, without a written pass. Should anyone venture to disobey this law, he will most likely be caught by the patrol and given thirty-nine lashes. This patrol is always on duty every Sunday, going to each plantation under their supervision, entering every slave cabin, and examining closely the conduct of the slaves; and if they find one slave from another plantation without a pass, he is immediately punished with a severe flogging. I recollect going one Sunday with my mother to visit my grandmother; and while there, two or three of the patrol came and looked into the cabin, and seeing my mother, demanded her pass. She told them that she had one but had left it in another cabin, from whence she soon brought it, which saved her a whipping but we were terribly frightened. The reader will obtain a better knowledge of the character of a Virginia patrol by the relation of an affair which came off on the neighboring plantation of Col. Alexander, in which some forty of Capt. Helm’s slaves were engaged, and which proved rather destructive of human life in the end. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/NYPL The Anti-Slavery Record).


1st. Patrols shall be appointed, at least four in each Captain’s district. 

2d. It shall be their duty, for two of their number, at least, to patrol their respective districts once in every week; in failure thereof, they shall be subject to the penalties prescribed by law. 

3d. They shall have power to inflict corporal punishment, if two be present agreeing thereto. 

4th. One patroller shall have power to seize any negro slave who behaves insolently to a patroller, or otherwise unlawfully or suspiciously; and hold such slave in custody until he can bring together a requisite number of Patrollers to act in the business. 

5th. Previous to entering on their duties, Patrols shall call on some acting magistrate, and take the following oath, to wit: “I, A. B. appointed one of the Patrol by the County Court of Rowan, for Captain B’s company, do hereby swear, that I will faithfully execute the duties of a Patroller, to the best of my ability, according to law and the regulations of the County Court.” (Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library). 

To learn more about the life and legacy of Austin Steward, readAustin Steward’s Legacy is the Pride of Rochester

Austin Steward’s Legacy is the Pride of Rochester


Steward’s portrait, by artist Shawn Dunwoody, under the Interstate 490 bridge over West Main Street. Photo by George Payne

I moved to Rochester as an Adirondack transplant in 2000. I am embarrassed to confess that I am only now beginning to learn about the life and legacy of the great Rochester abolitionist Austin Steward. Fortunately I am making up for lost time by visiting the many landmarks in the Flower City devoted to this freed slave turned grocer and internationally recognized social justice activist. I have quickly learned that Steward was a resilient, determined, pragmatic, intelligent, moral, and trustworthy man; he was also one of the greatest fighters for human dignity and civil freedom that this nation has ever known. Steward rose up from the hellish conditions of the Virginian plantation fields to become one of the most successful and admired businessman in Rochester; he also risked his life to learn the art of letters and to pen one of the most remarkable autobiographies of the antebellum period.

Photo by George Payne

Austin Steward had an undaunted courage which could not be silenced. He set a standard of commercial excellence that was emulated throughout the region. And when it came time to leave the comfort of his possessions and entrenched reputation at home, he answered the call of duty by joining the Wilberforce Colony in Canada. In every way, Austin Steward was an outstanding model of goodness, hopefulness, ingenuity, and integrity.

Want to learn more? Thanks to the solid work of the Documenting the American South project, we know a great deal about Steward beyond his extraordinary autobiography.


One of the only surviving images of Steward. Photo of plaque by George Payne

“Born in Prince William County, Virginia, sometime in 1793, Austin A. Steward was the son of slave parents Robert and Susan Steward. He had one sister. His grandfather had been stolen from Africa while his mother washed clothes near the sea coast; he was sold in slavery to a Virginia planter. The Steward family lived in conditions common to slaves—a small cabin built with rough boards, an earthen floor, and small openings on the sides to serve as windows. Their furniture consisted of those pieces the slaves could procure while occasionally hired out to earn a little money.

Around 1800 William Helm, a wealthy planter who held about one hundred slaves, purchased the Steward family. In his autobiography, Twenty-two Years a Slave , Austin Steward recalled being taken to the “great house” or Helm’s family mansion where he served as errand boy. He was required to stand in the presence of the Helm family—the two parents and their seven children—all day and a part of the night, in readiness for any task that they put before him. He also slept on the floor without a pillow or blanket, in the same room with his master and mistress.”

In a different section of this haunting narrative Steward describes the inhumanity of enslavement in unforgettable terms:

It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men. Captain William Helm employed an overseer, whose business it was to look after each slave in the field, and see that he performed his task. The overseer always went around with a whip, about nine feet long, made of the toughest kind of cowhide, the but-end of which was loaded with lead, and was about four or five inches in circumference, running to a point at the opposite extremity. This made a dreadful instrument of torture, and, when in the hands of a cruel overseer, it was truly fearful. With it, the skin of an ox or a horse could be cut through. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner. Our overseer, thus armed with his cowhide, and with a large bull-dog behind him, followed the slaves all day; and, if one of them fell in the rear from any cause, this cruel weapon was plied with terrible force. He would strike the dog one blow and the slave another, in order to keep the former from tearing the delinquent slave in pieces, – such was the ferocity of his canine attendant.

Apparently Steward’s Virginian master kept his family in luxury. “He had a racecourse on his plantation and owned fine horses as well, but he was a poor businessman. After losing heavily on a horse race and making other poor management decisions, Helm was in debt and was forced to sell his plantation and stock; however, he kept his slaves. He left his family behind and took his slaves as he moved from Virginia to Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario in upstate New York. They traveled about twenty miles each day and camped at night, and arrived at their destination after about twenty days.

In 1803 Helms returned to Virginia, gathered his family, and moved his family and his slaves to Bath, New York. Austin Steward and another slave named Simon were hired out for a while to Henry Tower, who was from an enterprising family in Lyons, New York. The Tower family ran a large grist mill and a distillery. Sometime later, Steward managed to purchase a spelling book and, as best he could, taught himself to read. After his master’s son-in-law caught him reading—slaves were forbidden to read-Steward received a severe flogging, which made him even more determined to read and write. Helm’s business suffered again and he began to sell off his slaves.

Photo by George Payne

Steward worked for Tower until about 1812, when he was hired out to another master. Then his thoughts turned toward freedom. He had seen his sister, who also lived in Bath, brutally beaten by her master; he had seen how the privileged people lived. He also questioned the legality of his slave status in New York state, for he knew about the 1785 law banning the sale of slaves brought into New York, and the gradual emancipation of slaves provided by the 1799 statue. The court decision of 1800, Fisher v. Fisher , further helped his case, for it outlawed hiring out slaves, as a violation of the 1785 law. Steward talked to a prominent lawyer who gave him instructions for pursuing his dream. After receiving Helm’s permission to visit friends in Geneva and Canandaigua in winter 1814, Steward talked with Dennis Comstock, president of the Manumission Society, who agreed to help him. Then Steward, now about twenty-two years old, escaped his master and was taken in by Comstock’s brother, Otis.”  ( See Documenting the American South)



Bust of Steward on the 2nd floor of the Clarion Riverside Hotel, 120 E. Main St (once the site of Steward’s grocery and dry goods store).                Photo by George Payne



Born in Prince William County, Virginia


Will Helm purchases the Steward family


Moves with Helm to Sodus Bay, New York


Moves with Helm to Bath, New york


Escapes from his master


Relocates to Rochester and opens meat market


Teaches Sabbath School to black children, builds house and expands his business


Marries a woman referred to as “Miss B”


Joins in Emancipation Day celebration on July 4; becomes agent for Freedom’s Journal and the Rights of All


Attends first annual Convention for the Improvement of Colored People and serves as vice president


Moves with his family to Wilberforce, Canada


Relocates to Rochester


Attends the meeting of the Association for the Political Improvement of the People of Color held in New York City


Attends the meeting of the Association for the Political Improvement of the People of Color held in New York City


Works with New York Convention of Colored Men and Serves as its president


Returns to Canandaigua; teaches school; resumes antislavery activities


Publishes his autobiography, Twenty-two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman


Dies in Rochester, New York

“Comstock hired Steward and gave him what Steward called in his autobiography “the dignity of collecting my own earnings.” He enjoyed his freedom: for the first time in his life he was allowed to sit at a table and take meals with others. About a year later, he thought that his freedom was ensured when Comstock refused to turn him over to Helm and reminded Helm that his actions violated state laws. When autumn came and the farm work was over, Steward went to a bookstore in Canandaigua and bought several old school books. With books in hand, he walked to Farmington to enroll in the local academy conducted by a man whom he identified simply as Mr. J. Comstock. About twenty-three years old when he entered, Steward stayed for three winters.

Photo by George Payne

Between 1817 and 1820, Steward’s father died in Palmyra, of injuries and severe illness. Austin Steward began a peddling business in the flourishing city of Rochester, promoting farm items such as poultry, meat, cheese, corn, oats, butter, and other items that Comstock wanted to sell. He continued the prosperous business for several months. The next year he relocated to Rochester and went into business for himself. By now he could read well and had a good command of writing and arithmetic. In September 1817, he opened a meat market business in Rochester, in a room that he rented from a man named A. Weakley. He reached out to the community in the summer of 1818 by teaching Sabbath school, or Sunday school, to black children. “I hoped to be able to benefit in some measure the poor and despised colored children,” he wrote in his autobiography, but their parents suffered such degradation from whites and lacked courage and determination that they wanted very little for their children. At first their children attended the school well; they soon dropped out and the school ceased to operate.

Steward murals in the Clarion Riverside Hotel



In 1818 as well, Steward bough a lot on Main Street for $500. He built a two-story dwelling and store and expanded his business. Although he believed early on that he was free, Steward soon learned that his freedom was threatened. His old master, Helm, learned about his prosperity, and now, having been reduced to one slave woman and living on public charity himself, Helm hired a lawyer named Lewland who visited Steward at his business establishment and demanded that he pay Helm $200. He left a notice forbidding anyone to remove or destroy any of Steward’s property. Helm filed suit in the Court of Equity, claiming right to Steward’s property. Steward then hired a lawyer named A. Sampson, and they prepared for court. Meanwhile, Helm, who had lived a profligate life of excessive drinking and gambling, died, and so did the law suit.

Steward’s business flourished, and Steward was able to pay for his house and two lots. He built a valuable brick building for his grocery store, which included all kinds of food and grain, and all of his products sold rapidly. He considered that he needed a partner in life “to share my joys and sorrows, and to assist me on through the tempestuous scenes of a life-long voyage,” he wrote in his autobiography. On May 11, 1825, Steward married a local woman, whom he called in his autobiography “Miss B____,” the youngest daughter of a close and well-traveled friend. The Stewards had eight children.”  (See Documenting the American South)

Steward's map
Site of Steward’s successful grocery on Main Street. A hotel now stands where his business once flourished.


In 1831 Steward’s life changed forever when he joined the Wilberforce Colony in Canada at the urging of a group of settlers.Wilberforce Colony was established by free African-American citizens, founded in c. 1829 north of present-day London, Ontario, Canada. It was the outgrowth of one of several movements connected with the American Colonization Society (which was established in 1816 to settle free American blacks in a colony in Africa).

Many American black communities who favored emigration preferred going to a country where free blacks could control their destiny. The establishment of Wilberforce Colony originated with blacks from Cincinnati, Ohio, who emigrated following passage of discriminatory laws in 1828 and a vicious riot against them in 1829.



Although this was a  unique period of emotional and spiritual growth for the Steward family, disputes with rival factions at Wilberforce, as well as other sociopolitical pressures on the community, prompted Steward to return to Rochester in 1837. “There he reentered business, and served on a committee appointed to oversee black schools in the city. After fire destroyed his business, he moved back to Canandaigua about 1842 and taught there. Despite this string of business failures,  Steward regained his prominence during the early 1840s, presiding over New York State black conventions in 1840, 1841, and 1845 and simultaneously devoting new energy to the antislavery, black suffrage, and temperance causes. His evangelical approach to these struggles culminated in his attendance at the 1843 Christian convention at Syracuse, which attempted to harmonize reform ideals with New Testament principles.” (See Documenting the American South)

Steward’s age forced him to localize his efforts; but he still chaired local black meetings, served as Canandaigua’s subscription agent for the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and was a vocal opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Steward always spoke and wrote graphically about the abomination of slavery. The following passage from his autobiography is a prime example:

Some have attempted to apologize for the enslaving of the Negro, by saying that they are inferior to the Anglo-Saxon race in every respect. This charge I deny; it is utterly false. Does not the Bible inform us that “God hath created of one blood all the nations of the earth?” And certainly in stature and physical force the colored man is quite equal to his white brother, and in many instances his superior; but were it otherwise, I can not see why the more favored class should enslave the other. True, God has given to the African a darker complexion than to his white brother: still, each have the same desires and aspirations. The food required for the sustenance of one is equally necessary for the other. Naturally or physically, they alike require to be warmed by the cheerful fire, when chilled by our northern winter’s breath; and alike they welcome the cool spring and the delightful shade of summer. Hence, I have come to the conclusion that God created all men free and equal, and placed them upon this earth to do good and benefit each other, and that war and slavery should be banished from the face of the earth.

This is the superb quality readers can expect from Steward’s classic narrative. Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, was published in 1857 and sold well right away. In fact, the book was so popular that a second edition was printed within two years. Other editions followed: third edition, 1861 and fourth edition, 1867. (It was also reprinted in 1968, 1969 and 2002 by Syracuse University Press, with a scholarly introduction by Graham R. Hodges, and in 2004 by Dover Publications in Mineola, New York.)


Twenty Two Years a Slave


Sadly, the terminal illness of his talented daughter Barbara during 1860-61 placed Steward in a precarious financial situation and prompted his return to Rochester to sell copies of his narrative and to seek aid from former friends. Although he entertained the idea of going south to teach black contrabands during the Civil War, he remained in Rochester until his death. (see Documenting the American South)

Steward is buried in the West Avenue Cemetery in Canandaigua.

Oh, when will this nation ” cease to do evil and learn to do well ? ” When will they judge character in accordance with its moral excellence, instead of the complexion a man unavoidably bears to the world ? – Austin Steward


seward's grave
Seward’s tombstone in Canandaigua, NY

















Sections of this article originally appeared in Documenting

Read more: Steward, Austin(1793–1865) – Abolitionist, slave, Chronology – Helm, Family, York, and Business – JRank Articles http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/4476/Steward-Austin-1793-1865.html#ixzz4GlysN7df

National Humanities Resource Article on Steward



Rapids Cemetery: A National Landmark Sinking in Time

Rapids Cemetery is one of the oldest and most mysterious cemeteries in Monroe County. Most people in Rochester have no idea that it even exists. For geographical context, it is about a 20 minute walk from my home on Exchange Street in the PLEX neighborhood by Corn Hill. I go down Magnolia, take a left on Seward, another left on Genesee, and then a right on Congress Ave. Just a few hundred yards down Congress and the landmark appears on a plateau like a vanquished field of sparsely dotted paleolithic structures. This is no ordinary cemetery. It houses the remains of pioneers, Revolutionary War veterans, Civil War infantryman, officers and nurses, and other residents of the lost community of Castle Town, which was a thriving and notorious landing during that time.

As far as we know, the cemetery was founded between 1810 and 1812. We also know that it was bought and maintained by the influential Wadsworth family which owned property from Geneseo to Rochester. Apparently the Wadsworths put aside one and a quarter acre for a burial place of area residents. Rapids Cemetery actually resided in Gates until 1902 when the area was finally annexed into the City of Rochester. The street leading to the cemetery was first called Cemetery Road. Then between 1880 and 1890 the name was converted to Chester Street. In 1899, Chester Street became Congress Avenue.

Apparently much is being done to preserve this national landmark. According to City of Rochester historian Christina Ridarsky:

“The City of Rochester owns and maintains this cemetery. It is currently under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department and is mowed and maintained regularly. Just last week, the department cleared brush along the edge of the cemetery, and more such work is planned over the next few weeks. The City is in the midst of a restoration project that includes members of several veterans organizations and the 19th Ward Community Association. We are consulting with a gravestone restoration expert and expect to restore and re-set many of the remaining headstones in the next two months. The site will be landscaped and marked with a historic marker. I and several community volunteers are researching the people buried here, and we will be looking for other volunteers to help with our recovery and restoration efforts.”

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills”
William Shakespeare, Richard II

Here lies the gravestone of a corporal in the NY regiment. As an infantryman in the Civil War, I can not begin to fathom the carnage that this young man must have experienced in battle. Even if this marble rock goes out of sight, his suffering will be known forevermore. It was too vast and too immense to be forgotten by the callous indifference of time.
Like Duncan, how much longer before we are swallowed up by the earth? Since my visit to the cemetery I have learned that this land has been orphaned by the city and the county. (Apparently it is mowed only three times a year.) How much longer do we have before our legacy is orphaned like the souls interned at Rapids Cemetery? How much longer do we have before someone stops mowing our grass? 100 years? 500 years? 1000 years? 5,000? 10,000? Soon we will all be devoured by the land we once clung to.
At the age of 78, Mr. Wingate may have managed to survive the worst conflict in American history without fighting himself. I wonder how many loved ones he lost in that most dreadful affair. I also wonder if he thought it was worth it in the end.
This grave caught my attention because of the bright red and white carnations. Her name is Pamela Harrison. According to her tombstone, she served in the Nurse Corps  during the Civil War. What a woman she must have been! Just think about how many lives she saved.  If there is not a Pamela Harrison Society out there already, we need to get moving on that. I have a hunch that she was more noteworthy than this modest stone leads on.




Rapids Cemetery has a sparse and paleolithic aura to it.
This soldier was interesting to me because he volunteered to fight in the Spanish American War. 89 years is an incredible age for a veteran of that era.  How many times did he escape death’s grasp? What motivated him to pick up a weapon and fight the Spanish?

Khizr Khan’s DNC Speech Addressed the Soul of a Nation

Although there were hundreds of speeches delivered at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, only one will be remembered past November. It was the one given by the parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004 when a car blew up after he told his troops to stand back. He took 10 steps forward to check out the suspicious vehicle himself, saving the lives of the soldiers he supervised.

His father, Khizr Khan, took the stage with Khan’s mother, Ghazala Khan, and totally ripped to shreds Trump’s ignorant portrayal of Islam. He described how Trump’s rhetoric is an attack not only on the dignity of grieving families but on the very principles which make the United States of America a destination for freedom seekers from all over the world.

At one point,  he asked Mr. Trump if he has even read the Constitution, which prompted the stoic father to pull his own personal copy from his jacket and wave it righteously in front of the cameras. The crowd went wild, and people from all over the world were stunned with admiration and gratitude. In terms of rebuking Mr. Trump’s policies head on, it was the most dramatic and effective moment of the DNC. As we have learned from subsequent debates and obnoxiously absurd Trump rebuttals, it may be ranked as a game changer this election, and also one of the most important speeches by a Muslim American this century.

Captain Humayun Khan: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Khan’s speech reminded Americans that this nation is also an Islamic nation. Service by Muslims in the United States military dates back to the American Revolutionary War; it continued with the War of 1812, the American Civil War, the Spanish American War, WWI and WWII,  Korea, Vietnam,  Afghanistan and Iraq, and the various conflicts being waged today. According to one survey, “At least 6,024 U.S. service members who declared Islam as their faith have served honorably in overseas war deployments since  9/11.”

Photo by George Payne

What Mr. Khan accomplished in his address went far beyond just an apology of his son’s patriotism and a tribute to the devotion of Muslim soldiers in the United States Armed Forces. Khan was reminding Mr. Trump that Islam is America. He was reminding Mr. Trump that America’s defense is the defense of Islam because there is no quintessential difference between the two. Mr. Khan was reminding the bombastic billionaire with a penchant for disgracing a religion he knows very little about, that this country is just as much their country as it is his. Lastly, he was reminding the nation at large that the insidious notion that Muslims are somehow guest contributors to “our” national story is dangerously misleading. Who belongs to this “our”? In his sensationally potent address, Khan reminded all of us that America is America because Muslims have contributed their time, labor and talents to make this a nation worth contributing to.

When the first Muslims came to the land that would become the United States is unknown, but many historians agree that the earliest Muslims came from the Senegambian region of Africa in the early 14th century. They were Moors, removed from Spain, who traveled to the Caribbean and likely to the Gulf of Mexico.  Even Columbus, when he sailed for the West Indies, took with him a manuscript written by Portuguese Muslims who had navigated their way to the New World in the 12th century. Many historians also contend that Muslims accompanied the Spanish as guides to the New World in the early 16th century in their conquest of what would become Arizona and New Mexico.


What is undeniable is that the first real wave of Muslims in the United States were African slaves. This is what Trump doesn’t get. Islam is not a foreign entity vying for credentials to get in. Muslims are not refugees. Putting aside the not so trivial point of law that people who pray to Allah do not need to prove their allegiance to be American- after all no citizen should be required to prove their religious allegiance to be American- an objective view of American history reveals that Muslims have been here since the beginning as forced laborers in a global system of oppression. Muslims have been part of the American story before the book was even really started. Certainly long before the arrival of Trump’s European ancestors in America, Muslims were here growing crops, building infrastructure, developing cultures, and transplanting their deepest hopes and dreams onto a landscape that must have felt strange, terrifying, and utterly fantastic.

With this history as a subtext, Khan’s speech was so crushing to Trump because it not only enshrined a Muslims’ inherent right to be counted as a valuable member of American society, it also demolished the very biases and stereotypes which those doubt laden questions are founded on. Every sentence out of Khan’s mouth was further evidence that he was the ideal messenger to denounce Trump’s xenophobia as categorically un-American. For established on the same core principles of acceptance and tolerance, Islam and America are both symbols of  love, compassion, inclusion, peace, sacrifice, mercy, openness, equality, freedom, courage, and pride in one’s work.

In that moment of glorious political theater, Mr. Khan did not sound like a man trying to make excuses for the world. He was not looking for scapegoats to blame and punish. On the contrary, he had a story of courage to tell. He was there to guard his son’s legacy and to protect and honor a nation’s future. He was there to invest and believe in a future where America is more loving than it was yesterday. When Mr. Khan was talking about his son’s heroism he was talking about the America that his religious ancestors helped create with their blood, sweat and tears. He was talking about a country that he has been willing to fight for every day of his life. What has Mr. Trump been willing to fight for beyond the personal satisfaction of winning?

Khan said:

Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy; that with hard work and goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.

We are blessed to raise our three sons in a nation where they were free to be themselves and follow their dreams.

Our son, Humayun, had dreams too, of being a military lawyer, but he put those dreams aside the day he sacrificed his life to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son ‘the best of America’.

If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities; women; judges; even his own party leadership. 

He vows to build walls, and ban us from this country. Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future.

Let me ask you: have you even read the United States constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. [he pulls it out] In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law’.

Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America.

You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.

We cannot solve our problems by building walls, sowing division. We are stronger together. And we will keep getting stronger when Hillary Clinton becomes our President.

In conclusion, I ask every patriot American, all Muslim immigrants, and all immigrants to not take this election lightly.

This is a historic election, and I request to honour the sacrifice of my son – and on election day, take the time to get out and vote.

And vote for the healer. vote for the strongest, most qualified candidate, Hillary Clinton, not the divider. God bless you, thank you.



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