Biography of William Still

Father of the Underground Railroad

William Still
Public Domain

William Still (1821 - 1902) was a prominent abolitionist and coined the term Underground Railroad. Still was also one of the chief conductors of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania.

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, "Underground Railroad."  Still believed that "Underground Railroad"  could "encourage the race in efforts of self-elevation."

Early Life

Still was born in Burlington County, NJ to Levin and Charity Still. Although his birth date is given on October 7, 1821, Still provided the date of November 1819 on the 1900 Census. Still's parents were both former slaves. His father, Levin Still, purchased his own freedom. His mother, Charity, escaped from enslavement twice. The first time Charity Still escaped she brought along her four oldest children. However, she and her children were recaptured and returned to slavery. The second time Charity Still ran away, she returned with two daughters. Her sons, however, were sold to slave owners in Mississippi.

Throughout 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. Still's literacy skills that would help him become a prominent abolitionist and advocate for freed African-Americans. 


In 1844, Still relocated in Philadelphia where he worked as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. While working for the Society, Still became an active member of the organization and served as chairman of a committee to help runaways once they reached Philadelphia.

From 1844 to 1865, Still assisted at least 60 enslaved African-Americans escape bondage every month. As a result Still became known as the "Father of the Underground Railroad." Still interviewed enslaved African-Americans seeking freedom by documenting where they came from, their final destination as a well as their pseudonym.

During one of his interviews, Still realized that he was questioning his older brother, Peter, who had been sold to another slaveholder once their mother escaped. Still documented the lives of more than 1000 former enslaved people and kept this information hidden until slavery was abolished in 1865.

With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Still was elected chairman of a vigilance committee organized in response to the legislation.

After 1865

Following the abolition of slavery, Still published the interviews he conducted in a book entitled, "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." To that end, the publication of Underground Railroad 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.

African-American Civic Leader

In addition to Still's work as an abolitionist, he was a prominent leader of the African-American community. In 1855, Still traveled to Canada to observe enclaves of former enslaved African-Americans.

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; a founding member of the Berean Presbyterian Church; and helped establish a Mission School in North Philadelphia.

Marriage and Family

Early in Still's career as an abolitionist and civil rights activist, he met and married Letitia George. Following their marriage in 1847, the couple had four children, Caroline Matilda Still, one of the first African-American female 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.


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


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.'"