July 14, 1902
Abolitionist William Still was the eighteenth and last child born to former slaves near Medford, Burlington County, New Jersey. His mother had escaped from a plantation in Maryland, and his father had bought his own freedom. Still worked on his family's farm until he was twenty, when he went to work for neighboring farmers. He had little formal education and was largely self-taught. In 1844 he left for Philadelphia, where he spent three years working at a number of odd jobs.
Still became involved with the abolitionist movement in 1847, when he was employed by the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Three years later he was named chair of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, the clandestine wing of the Abolition Society that organized the city's Underground Railroad. Still and the committee helped shelter fugitive slaves stopping in Philadelphia on the way to Canada. One of the slaves he helped was his brother, Peter Still, who had been left behind by his mother during her escape.
While working with the Pennsylvania Society, Still gave material aid to John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and housed Brown's wife after the raid. Still also worked as the Philadelphia distribution agent for the national abolitionist paper the Provincial Freeman. He discontinued his abolitionist work in 1861 but remained affiliated with the society for the remainder of his life.
During the Civil War Still devoted himself to business ventures; he opened a store that sold stoves, he sold provisions to black soldiers stationed at nearby Camp William Penn, and he started a successful coal business. In the late 1860s he led a successful campaign to end discrimination on Philadelphia streetcars, helped organize a research organization to collect data about African Americans, and played for the all-black Philadelphia Pythians baseball team, which was denied entry into a white league.
In 1872 Still published an extensive account of his work with fugitive slaves, The Underground Railroad, one of the few memoirs of this kind written by an African American after Emancipation. The book portrays the runaway slaves as courageous, even heroic figures and their escape to freedom as an act of self-determination. Still's work was published in three editions and was the most widely circulated nineteenth-century history of the Underground Railroad.
In the late nineteenth century Still developed several modestly successful businesses and continued to devote himself to black social causes. In the 1870s and 1880s he supported local reform candidates, organized a YMCA branch for black youth, served on the Freedmen's Aid Commission, and helped manage homes for African-American elderly and orphans.
In the early 1880s Still was one of a group of older black leaders in the Northeast who left the Republican Party to encourage black political independence and support of Democratic candidates when such support was advantageous to African Americans. Despite his extensive political activities, Still advocated economic self-improvement over politics as the best course for black advancement.
In 1888 Still and his son-in-law, Matthew Anderson, a prominent black minister and businessman in Philadelphia, founded the Berean Building and Loan Association, which provided loans to black home buyers. Still served as the association's first president. From 1896 to 1901 he also served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, which after 1865 continued to work for African-American rights and added "and for Improving the Condition of the African Race" to its title. Still died in Philadelphia in 1902.
Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement (1941). Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
Still, William. The Underground Railroad (1872). New York: Arno Press, 1968.
thaddeus russell (1996)
William Still (1821-1902), African American abolitionist, philanthropist, and business person, became an important strategist for the Underground Rail road and wrote an account of the hundreds of slaves he aided in their flight to freedom.
William Still was born free on Oct. 7, 1821, in Shamong, Burlington County, N.J. He was the youngest of 18 children born to parents who had been slaves. His father had purchased freedom. His mother had escaped slavery with two of her four children. His parents settled on a 40-acre plot near Medford, N.J.
At the age of 23 and self-taught, Still went to Philadelphia, where he held a number of jobs before joining the staff of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, as janitor and mail clerk. During the 14 years he spent with the society, his responsibilities grew, and he took a special interest in assisting runaway slaves, often boarding them in his home.
In 1852 Still was named chairman of a committee of four acting for the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia. The committee offered financial assistance to escaping slaves, and Still was especially effective in finding board and lodging for them among the black population of Philadelphia.
Still recorded the information he got from interviewing slaves so that he could reunite friends and relatives. During one interview, he discovered that the slave he was trying to help was his own brother, left behind when their mother escaped 40 years before. His careful records later became the documentation for his famous book, The Underground Railroad (1872).
When abolitionist John Brown raided Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859, Still sheltered some of Brown's men who were able to escape the law, as well as some members of Brown's family. Still was constantly in danger of prosecution, and had his detailed records been discovered, they probably would have sent him and other members of the Vigilance Committee to prison. Charges were brought against him several times, but only once was he unable to clear himself, and this was in a civil suit brought by a former slave whose motives and character Still had challenged.
In 1855 Still visited Canada to see how the refugees from slavery who had settled there were faring. He was impressed by their determination and published an account of their achievement. He was also active in civil rights efforts for blacks in the North, especially in Philadelphia. He helped organize and finance a society to collect information on black life, was responsible for the establishment of an orphanage for children of black soldiers and sailors, and organized a Young Men's Christian Association for blacks. Still's book, The Underground Railroad, differs from most accounts of the time in emphasizing the bravery and ingenuity of the escaping slaves rather than the heroism of the railroad's white conductors.
Sources for biographical information on Still are Wilhelmina S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1967); William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1969); and August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, eds., The Making of Black America (2 vols., 1969). □