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Black History Month - Week 2: Surviving and Flourishing Beyond Slavery

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

WELCOME (in Swahili, "Karibu Sana!")

February is Black History Month, a time dedicated to celebrating influential Black Americans and people of African descent in communities worldwide. Thank you for joining Week 2 of our Black History Month Program.


WEEKLY SPOTLIGHT - Senator Samra Brouk

For week two of our Black History Month Program, we proudly feature Mendon High School alumna and Rochester’s own, Senator Samra Brouk.

Born in the City of Rochester, her father is an immigrant from Ethiopia, and her mother hails from Bloomfield, New York. Senator Brouk lives a life of service that has prepared her for the role of senator of New York’s 55th District.

Senator Brouk made history on Saturday, January 16, 2021, when she became the first Black woman to be sworn in to represent our District.

Visit our page for Senator Brouk to view her historical swearing-in ceremony and to learn more about her.


This week’s theme is centered on the bravery, strength, ingenuity, and faith that the first African people in America needed to endure the ordeal of slavery, live as free people in the colonies, and strive for meaningful lives in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Early Black Americans have made many contributions to American society, and Week 2 will provide a few notable examples.

Please return to our program to access information that will be provided during Weeks 3 and 4.

Black history did not begin with slavery. To read more about Black history before Africans arrived in the New World, view resources provided in Week 1: Introduction—The African Diaspora

For more information, review these sections of our program:

The American Revolution through The Civil Rights Era

From Bondage to Freedom

The first slaves arrived in the British Colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619, one hundred forty-six years before the American Revolution. Despite enduring great hardships, the constant threat of violence, death, and extreme poverty, Black people found ways, small and large, to persevere, resist, survive, and build community bonds, businesses, schools, and churches that sustained slaves and free Black people in the Colonies, through the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars, the Reconstruction Era, and beyond.

A multitude of Black people escaped bondage and used their freedom to support themselves and uplift others. African American abolitionists and their White allies ushered many enslaved people to freedom and laid the foundations of liberty for their Black descendants. They persisted with the faith of knowing that their sacrifices and efforts had the potential to yield fruit.

Great Quests for Freedom

Despite living in bondage, some slaves overcame extraordinary odds and ran away from their captures in the Northern and Southern Colonies. The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to the mid-19th century and used by enslaved African-Americans to escape into free states and Canada.

The Story of Abolitionist Henry Box Brown

Hear Professor Tera Hunter, Princeton University historian, describe how before the Civil War, Henry Box Brown escaped from Virginia in 1849 to build a new life as an abolitionist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Boston, Massachusetts, and other places in the Northeast United States.


Notable Black Abolitionists of the Western New York Region (1700s–1800s)

Abolitionist activity involving Black people and White allies occurred throughout the American Colonies before and during the Civil War. Countless individuals made it possible for slaves to migrate north and escape slavery or free themselves from slaveholders in the north.

Slavery was still legal in Western New York from 1790 to 1827, even after the York State Legislature passed "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery" in 1799. Slaves already in servitude remained slaves for life, and new younger slaves could be retained in bondage as "indentured servants." The law failed to fully ban slavery outright until 1827, some 50 years after Vermont had outlawed slavery. At the time, there were still 1000's of Black slaves throughout the region.

Western New York represented an abolitionist stronghold for freedom fighters that collaborated with others throughout the Northern and Southern Colonies. The historical figures highlighted in the following section have direct ties to Upstate New York. They helped shape our region from its very beginnings and made significant cultural, economic, and social impacts that continue to reverberate throughout our country.

In 1811, slaveholder Captain William Helm moved to Upstate New York and settled in Bath, NY. With him, Helm brought Austin Steward, among 50-100 other enslaved Black people.

During the very same year, Colonel Nathanial Rochester [1852-1831] purchased and established the town of "Rochesterville"—later renamed Rochester in 1817. Before moving to Upstate New York with 10 slaves, it is recorded that Rochester lived as a soldier, merchant, and slave trader in Maryland.

During trips to Geneva and Canandaigua, Austin Steward heard White abolitionists' speeches from the Manumission Society. In 1814, after advisement that he was being held illegally as a slave, Steward escaped and negotiated to retain his freedom with the aid of Darius Comstock, president of the Ontario County Manumission Society.

In 1817, Steward became a successful entrepreneur, opening a meat market in Brighton. In 1818, Steward established “The Sabbath School for Children of Color” in Rochester.

In 1827, as slavery was “abolished” in New York State, Steward gave the Emancipation speech on July 5, 1827, in Rochester. His oration encouraged people of color to educate themselves, become entrepreneurs, and live lives of integrity based on faith. In 1828, Steward was elected as a trustee of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Rochester. Rev. Thomas James would become the church's first preacher, and where Frederick Douglas would later find support for his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star.

Learn more about the contributions of Austin Steward.

In 1804, Thomas James (then Tom) was born into slavery in Canajoharie, N.Y. He was sold and traded several times before escaping slavery in 1821 and running along the Eire Canal corridor to Niagara, Canada. He returned to the Lockport/Rochester area 3 months later, found work, and began religious studies, and adopted the name James.

In 1829, James began preaching in Rochester, purchased land on Favor Street in the Corn Hill area, and built the first of three church buildings that would occupy that site.

As an ordained minister in 1833, Rev. James held the first of a series of anti-slavery society meetings in the courthouse. The meeting's leading promoters were three abolitionists, William Bloss, Dr. Reid, and Dr. W. Smith. They purchased a printing press and began publishing a fortnightly paper called “The Rights of Man.”

To learn more about the life of Rev. Thomas James, follow the link.

In 1818, Frederick Douglas was born into slavery in Maryland, and in 1845 escaped to freedom to New York City, where he wrote his autobiography, the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

To avoid recapture by his former capture, whose name and location he had given in the narrative, Douglass left on a two-year speaking tour of Great Britain and Ireland. After returning to the U.S. in 1847, using £ 500 (equivalent to $46,030 in 2019) given him by English supporters, Frederick Douglass began publishing his first abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, from the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester, New York.

Access the link to view an outline of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments.

Harriet Tubman (birth name Araminta Ross) was born into slavery in 1822 in Maryland. In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped from Maryland to Philadelphia along the Underground Railroad and later became known as “The Moses of Her People” because she led so many slaves to freedom.

Approximately two years later, Tubman guided an unidentified group of 11 runaway slaves northward. Evidence suggests that Tubman and her group stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.

Tubman was introduced to the abolitionist John Brown in 1858, who advocated using violence to dismantle slavery in the United States. Brown asked Tubman to gather former slaves then living in present-day Southern Ontario, NY., who might be willing to join his fighting force, which she did. Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. In the span of 11 years, Tubman made approximately 19 trips between the north and south and rescued more than 300 slaves. She lost no passengers along the Underground Railroad.

More information about Harriett Tubman can be found using the link.

Making Connections

To appreciate the collective impact and historical context of Colonial expansion on the Native Americans, Black Americans, abolitionists, Colonial founders, and slaveholders that lived in Western New York, it is important to understand how their lives were connected.

Please view our Settlement of Western New York and the Black Abolition Movement. An incomplete history, this timeline's goal was not to be comprehensive but to show that Black history reaches back to the beginning of Western European entry into the American continent. Throughout this time, Black Americans resisted and fought for their freedom in the face of enormous odds.

The Significance of Religion, Music, & Art in Early Black American Culture

After arriving in the New World, many Africans converted to Christianity. Often, the assembly of small church congregations provided the only opportunity for enslaved people to gather socially to enjoy music, singing, dancing, and worship. They also organized resistance movements.

Many of the slaves and their descendants found comfort in the Biblical messages of spiritual equality and deliverance. People held church in small makeshift structures, in outdoor encampments, and in some instances, slaves built formal church structures.

The Significance of Religion in the Black Abolitionist Movement

The Black abolitionist movement found one of its most enduring proponents in the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Rochester, New York. Founded in 1827, the early church edifice was connected to the Underground Railroad in Rochester. A new building (pictured) was constructed near the site in 1879.

Harriet Tubman, known as “The Moses of her people,” is credited with leading hundreds of Negro slaves to freedom, using the first building to shelter fugitive slaves. Susan B. Anthony—the great American women's rights activist—gave one of her last public addresses in the church. Frederick Douglass edited his abolitionist papers, “The North Star,” from presses set up in the church basement.

To this day, the Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Corn Hill, Rochester, N.Y. continues to be a leading force in the community. It has been the gathering place for civic groups concerned with community problems and progress.

Photo credit: Ordinary Philosophy.


The American Civil War (1861–1865)

Did you know that African Americans fought in the Civil War? Learn how Black soldiers fought, served during the war, and sought freedom in league with the Constitution.

View photographs of African American Soldiers that contributed to the Civil War efforts.


Early Black American History

Black history is long, varied, and rich, and in 1619 began to parallel the history of indigenous Native American people and the English settlers in the Colonies. For information about historical milestones and contributions of Black Americans, see these resources:

Learn about these important historical events

  • Native America—First Look: (Video)

  • Passage from Africa to the New World: The 1619 Project-Origin of Slavery in America (Article): The New York Times Magazine

  • Black Heroes of the Revolutionary War (Video): The History Channel

  • The Underground Railroad (Video):

  • The Thirteenth Amendment (Emancipation Proclamation) and the Civil War (video)

Non-comprehensive List of Notable Black Americans (1700s–1800s)

Additional Resources:

Encouraging Thoughts and Conversations:

Question of the week- How does it feel to be marginalized and excluded? What can you do to help other people feel included?



Throughout February, we will share our PTSA programming. We will also include news about the exciting educational experiences that schools across our district have planned to help students and families celebrate Black History Month.

We know that it is essential to create welcoming schools and classrooms where differences in language, culture, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, unique abilities, etc., are viewed as assets rather than deficits. An awareness and acceptance of these differences are foundational to the success of all students.

Please return to our website each week. Here you will find interviews, historical profiles, and resources providing snapshots of the culture and the legacy of the African Diaspora and life in America.

If you have questions regarding any of this material, you may reach the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at


Indigenous Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge the Seneca people as the traditional custodians of the land we are on and their enduring presence. We would also like to pay respects to Elders past and present of the Hodinöhsö:ni' Confederacy, and we extend that respect to any other indigenous people who are present with us today. We make this acknowledgment as a first step in fulfilling our responsibility to critically look at colonial histories and their present-day implications as we pay respect to the keepers of the land and the land itself. We are aware that acknowledgment is not reparation. Land acknowledgment without active steps towards education, support of the Seneca Nation, and sincere efforts to undo Colonial legacies mean very little.


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