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Father of the Underground Railroad: The Resistance of William Still

The Narrative of Racial Difference

Laura Marti – February 7, 2023

Feature image: William Still (1821-1902), a conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped nearly 800 enslaved African Americans to freedom.

William Still was an abolitionist and civil rights activist who played a crucial role in the Underground Railroad. He risked his life shepherding runaway enslaved people to freedom in the tumultuous years leading up to America’s Civil War. Still was the director of a complex network of abolitionists, sympathizers, and safe houses that stretched from Philadelphia to what is now Southern Ontario. He was a model of Black resistance for future generations, but his story had been largely lost until recently.

Born in Burlington, New Jersey in 1821, William Still was the son of formerly enslaved people who had purchased their freedom. He grew up in a household that valued education and hard work, and he was determined to make a difference in the world.

Still began his career as a mail clerk and janitor at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS) in Philadelphia, where he quickly became involved in the abolitionist movement. Still’s job was to ensure that fugitives moved through Philadelphia as safely and efficiently as possible. As recounted in Smithsonian Magazine from Andrew Diemer’s new book about William Still (2022):

This meant coordinating with allies outside of the city, sometimes in towns just miles outside of Philadelphia, other times in Southern port cities further away. It meant making sure that when fugitives arrived in the city, they were guided to a safe place to stay. It meant providing medical care, food, a bath, and a haircut to fugitives who had often been on the road for days or weeks, in addition to gathering information from informants across the city in order to anticipate the actions of the slave hunters who prowled the city.

An 1898 map of Underground Railroad routes to Canada | Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
An 1898 map of Underground Railroad routes to Canada | Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

One example of a person helped by Still’s ability to navigate an otherwise dangerous passage to safety is Peter Freedman. In 1850, Freedman, who had recently purchased his freedom from enslavement, arrived in Philadelphia from Alabama. He was told to find William Still at the PASS office. Peter recounted to Still his harrowing life story, and that he was searching for his mother from whom he had been separated four decades earlier. 

But Freedman was not just a stranger seeking his freedom. As Still listened to his story and asked questions, he realized that Peter Freedman was his brother. The next day, the two traveled across the Delaware River to New Jersey, where most of the Still family lived, and Still reunited Peter Freedman (who later took the name Still) with their 80-year-old mother. Still later recalled how the unexpected reunion in his own family inspired a new commitment to keeping detailed, written records about the people who came through the PASS offices, in the hope it could bring together more families torn apart by slavery and the flight to freedom. 

Read more about Peter’s story here.

Portraits of William Still’s brother Peter and mother Charity Still from 1872
Portraits of William Still’s brother Peter and mother Charity Still from 1872. | Image credit: Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries | Hidden City Philadelphia

One interesting story that was discovered about Still, discussed in this article by Amy Cohen, is that he met with John Brown in 1858 as Brown sought funding for the ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. Cohen says, “Although Still did not contribute money, he helped two survivors of the raid as they sought a path to Canada. Brown’s wife Mary was staying with the Still family when her husband was executed for his deeds. Later, when Still learned that Brown’s papers had been seized by the federal government, he decided to hide his records of the Underground Railroad in Lebanon Cemetery in South Philadelphia.” So even the act of keeping these records put his life at risk.

In addition to his work as an abolitionist and writer, Still was involved in other social justice causes. He was a strong advocate for women’s rights and suffrage, and was one of the founders of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He served on the board of directors of the National Federation of Afro-American Women. He also advocated for the rights of the Black community in Philadelphia. For example, he launched a letter-writing and petition campaign against discriminatory policies of streetcar companies that only permitted Black people to stand on the narrow ledge between the streetcar and the horses that powered them.

In 1862 William Still, Isaiah Wears, and other civil rights activists circulated a petition arguing against the segregation of streetcars
In 1862 William Still, Isaiah Wears, and other civil rights activists circulated a petition arguing against the segregation of streetcars. 360 influential white Philadelphians signed the appeal. | Image credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania / Hidden City Philadelphia

One of William Still’s most important contributions to the abolitionist movement was his book, The Underground Railroad, first published in 1872. In this book, Still used all the records he had been keeping to document the stories of hundreds of enslaved people who had escaped to freedom with the help of the Underground Railroad. He included detailed accounts of their journeys, as well as their experiences in slavery. The book was an important record of the struggles and triumphs of these brave individuals, and it helped to educate the public about the horrors of slavery.

The UnderGround RailRoad Records 1872
William Still’s pièce de résistance: The UnderGround RailRoad Records (originally published 1872; revised edition 1886 shown)

The significance of Still’s book cannot be overstated. In the recent work by historian William Kashatus, William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia (2021), Kashatus emphasizes that Still’s book provided details about escapees which enabled families to find lost relatives they had been separated from because of slavery. Still’s work shows us that enslaved people were prepared to save themselves—they simply needed a hand. Still wanted his readers to understand that enslaved people were the engine of the Underground Railroad, that they were agents in their own liberation. At the time of its publication, it was the longest work ever published by an African American. To this day, Still’s book is considered the single best source for historians of the Underground Railroad. 

Despite his many accomplishments, Still faced significant challenges and obstacles throughout his life. He was often the target of violence and intimidation, and he faced discrimination and racism at every turn. But he remained steadfast in his commitment to the causes of social justice and equality well into the later years of his life. He remained active in the abolitionist movement, writing and speaking about the issues that mattered to him, including fighting for the full rights of citizenship for Black Americans and the right to vote. 

The title page of Still's 1872 book, The Underground Railroad
The title page of Still’s 1872 book, The Underground Railroad New York Public Library Digital Collections

Still accomplished much in his long life. In a PBS documentary on Still’s life, Professor Spencer Crew, George Mason University, states

[Still] was recognized as important during the period, but got lost in the activities of other individuals. He is slowly being recognized more in understanding how valuable his contributions were…not only in terms of his active commitment to helping runaways gain their freedom and go on to a better life, but also his willingness to capture their stories and to save these things despite all the dangers, because it was important for him and for others to have that voice, to have that other perspective available for others to see and to understand. So those choices by him were critical ones.” 

To learn more, watch this clip William Still’s Place in History from a 2012 PBS documentary on his life, and watch the entire documentary here: Underground Railroad: The William Still Story.

Today William Still might be considered a hidden figure in American history, but his place in the story of the Underground Railroad has been gaining recognition in recent years. It is a story of resistance and it is also a story of the preservation of history. Still risked his life assisting African Americans to freedom, but he also risked his life just by carefully chronicling their stories. He believed their stories had value. He believed that the future generations needed to know about these heroes and see them as role models. He passed away in 1902, at the age of 81, leaving behind a legacy of activism and advocacy. His passion for the cause of freedom was so great that when he died in 1902, The New York Times called him “The Father of the Underground Railroad.”

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Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.