WILLIAM STILL - "FATHER OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD"

HIS FAMILY TREE

William Still was a free Black man, born on October 7, 1821 in Burlington County, New Jersey. Referred to as the Father of the Underground Rail Road, he helped approximately 800 black men and women escape to freedom in the North. 

His parents, Levin and Charity Still, were born into slavery in Virginia. In 1798, Levin bought his freedom and moved to New Jersey. Charity escaped slavery with their 4 children, but they were all recaptured and returned to slavery. The second time Charity escaped, she was only able to bring the couple's 2 daughters with her to New Jersey -- leaving their 2 sons behind. 

 

THE FATHER OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

William Still was an abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Rail Road for 18 years. During this time he raised funds, provided shelter, and facilitated the resettlement of escaped slaves in the North. He got his start in 1847 at the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery as a clerk. After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Society appointed him as chairman of its Vigilance Committee, which was tasked with supporting escaped and freed slaves that reached Philadelphia. In this position, William interviewed hundreds of men and women; he recorded their stories, including a short biography, details on their experiences in slavery, the routes they took to escape, their ultimate destination, and any aliases they adopted.

William was compelled to begin recording these stories by a personal experience. In 1850, he interviewed a runaway slave who went by Peter Freedman. While listening to Peter's story of his mother's 2 escapes from slavery, William realized that Peter was one of the sons that his mother left behind. This experience encouraged William to record these stories so that escaped slaves could be reunited with their families.

William hid these recordings until well-after the Civil War, understanding the danger that this information could create for escaped slaves, potential runaways, abolitionists, and free Black men and women. In 1872, William shared these recordings in his self-published book The Underground RailroadHis book is the only first person account of the Underground Railroad that is written and self-published by a Black American.  

A DEDICATED ACTIVIST

In addition to his lifelong commitment to abolition, William Still was very active in the fight to protect the civil rights of Black men and women living in Philadelphia. At that time, Black Philadelphians were also prohibited from riding street cars in the city. William attacked this racial discrimination in an 1859 North American and United States Gazette article asking why the "City of Brotherly Love" taxed Black citizens to maintain highways they weren't allowed to use. In 1861, he began grassroots organizing, getting thousands of signatures for an anti-discrimination petition that he then presented to the Board of Railway Company Presidents. 

In 1867, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill prohibiting racial discrimination on its railway lines and street cars. That same year, William shared his position against racial discrimination in a public address entitled A Brief Narrative of the Struggle for the Frights of the Colored People of Philadelphia in the City Railway Cars; and a Defence of William Still, Relating to His Agency Touching the Passage of the Late Bill.

 

HIS LEGACY

Through his enduring dedication to Black liberation, William Still provided future generations of Black Americans with a gleaming example of how we can each dedicate our lives to the fight civil rights and freedom. The actions he took to secure freedom for our people provide us with the history and knowledge we need to continue the fight in our lifetime. 

"The heroism and desperate struggle that many of our people had to endure should be kept green in the memory of this and coming generations."

-- William Still

 

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