Biography of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad

William Still

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William Still (October 7, 1821–July 14, 1902) was a prominent abolitionist who coined the term Underground Railroad and, as one of the chief "conductors" in Pennsylvania helped thousands of people get free and settled away from slavery. Throughout his life, Still fought not only to abolish slavery, but also to provide African-Americans in northern enclaves with civil rights. Still's work with runaways is documented in his seminal text, "The Underground Rail Road." Still believed that the book could "encourage the race in efforts of self-elevation."

Fast Facts: William Still

  • Known For: Abolitionist, "Father of the Underground Railroad"
  • Born: October 7, 1821 near Medford, New Jersey
  • Parents: Levin and Charity (Sidney) Steel
  • Died: July 14, 1902 in Philadelphia
  • Education: Little formal education, self-taught
  • Published Works: The Underground Rail Road
  • Spouse: Letitia George (m. 1847)
  • Children: Caroline Matilda Still, William Wilberforce Still, Robert George Still, Frances Ellen Still

Early Life

Still was born a free black man in near the town of Medford, in Burlington County, New Jersey, the youngest of 18 children born to Levin and Sidney Steel. Although he gave his official birthdate as October 7, 1821, Still provided the date of November 1819 on the 1900 census. Still was the son of people who had been enslaved laborers on a potato and corn farm on the eastern shore of Maryland owned by Saunders Griffin.

William Still's father Levin Steel was able to purchase his own freedom, but his wife Sidney had to escape enslavement twice. The first time she escaped she brought along her four oldest children. However, she and her children were recaptured and returned to slavery. The second time Sidney Steel ran away, she brought two daughters, but her sons were sold to slave owners in Mississippi. Once the family was settled in New Jersey, Levin changed the spelling of their name to Still and Sidney took a new name, Charity.

Throughout William Still's childhood, he worked with his family on their farm and also found work as a woodcutter. Although Still received very little formal education, he did learn to read and write, teaching himself by extensive reading. Still's literary skills would help him become a prominent abolitionist and advocate for freed African-Americans.

Marriage and Family

In 1844 at the age of 23, Still relocated to Philadelphia, where he worked first as a janitor and then as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Soon he became an active member of the organization, and by 1850 he served as the chairman of the committee established to help runaway slaves.

While he was in Philadelphia, Still met and married Letitia George. Following their marriage in 1847, the couple had four children: Caroline Matilda Still, one of the first African-American women doctors in the United States; William Wilberforce Still, a prominent African-American lawyer in Philadelphia; Robert George Still, a journalist and print shop owner; and Frances Ellen Still, an educator who was named after the poet Frances Watkins Harper.

The Underground Railroad

Between 1844 and 1865, Still helped at least 60 enslaved African-Americans escape bondage. Still interviewed many of the enslaved African-Americans seeking freedom, men, women, and families, documenting where they came from, the difficulties they met and help they found along the way, their final destination, and the pseudonyms they used to relocate.

During one of his interviews, Still realized that he was questioning his older brother Peter, who had been sold to another slaveholder when their mother escaped. During his time with the Anti-Slavery Society, Still put together records of more than 1,000 former enslaved people, keeping the information hidden until slavery was abolished in 1865.

With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Still was elected chairman of the Vigilance Committee organized to find a way to circumvent the legislation.

African-American Civic Leader

Since his work with the Underground Railroad had to be kept secret, Still kept a fairly low public profile until slaves were freed. Nonetheless, he was a fairly prominent leader of the African-American community: in 1855, he traveled to Canada to observe enclaves of former slaves.

By 1859, Still began the fight to desegregate Philadelphia's public transportation system by publishing a letter in a local newspaper. Although Still was supported by many in this endeavor, some members of the African-American community were less interested in gaining civil rights. As a result, Still published a pamphlet entitled, ​"A Brief Narrative of the Struggle for the Rights of the Colored People of Philadelphia in the City Railway Cars" in 1867. After eight years of lobbying, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law ending segregation of public transportation.

Still was also an organizer of a YMCA for African-American youngsters; an active participant in the Freedmen's Aid Commission; and a founding member of the Berean Presbyterian Church. He also helped establish a Mission School in North Philadelphia.

After 1865

In 1872, seven years after the abolition of slavery, Still published his collected interviews in a book entitled, "The Underground Rail Road." The book included more than 1,000 interviews and was 800 pages long: the tales are heroic and harrowing, and they illustrate how people suffered deeply and sacrificed much to escape slavery. Notably, the text underscored the fact that the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia was primarily organized and maintained by African-Americans.

As a result, Still became known as the "Father of the Underground Railroad." Of his book, Still said, "we very much need works on various topics from the pens of colored men to represent the race intellectually." The publication of "The Underground Rail Road" was important to the body of literature published by African-Americans documenting their history as abolitionists and former slaves.

Still's book was published in three editions and went on to become the most circulated text on the Underground Railroad. In 1876, Still placed the book on exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition to remind visitors of the legacy of slavery in the United States. By the late 1870s, he sold an estimated 5,000–10,000 copies. In 1883, he issued the third expanded edition that included an autobiographical sketch.

Businessman

During his career as an abolitionist and civil rights activist, Still acquired considerable personal wealth. He began purchasing real estate throughout Philadelphia as a young man. Later, he ran a coal business and established a store selling new and used stoves. He also received proceeds from the sales of his book.

To publicize his book, Still built a network of efficient, entrepreneurial, college-educated sales agents to sell what he described as a collection of "quiet examples of what fortitude can achieve where freedom is the goal."

Death

Still died in 1902 of heart trouble. In Still's obituary, The New York Times wrote that he was "one of the best-educated members of his race, who was known throughout the country as the 'Father of the Underground Railroad.'"

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