William Still (1821-1902), abolitionist, writer, and businessman


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Often called « The Father of the Underground Railroad, » Still helped as many as 60 slaves a month escape to freedom, interviewing each person and keeping careful records, including a brief biography and the destination of each person, along with any alias that they adopted, though he kept his records carefully hidden. He is one of the many who helped slaves escape from the United States. During one interview of an escapee, he discovered that the man, Peter Still, was his own brother. They had been separated since childhood, and his brother knew little about the rest of his family. Still later published The Underground Rail Road Records, which chronicles the stories and methods of 649 slaves who escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Peter Still later collaborated on a book detailing his experiences.
Still was born near Medford, in Burlington County, N.J. His father, Levin Steel, was a former slave who had purchased his own freedom and changed his name to Still to protect his wife Sidney, who had escaped from slavery in Maryland. After her first escape attempt had failed she ran to her husband with two of their four children and changed her name to Charity. Their son William was the youngest of eighteen children. From early boyhood he worked on his father’s farm and as a woodcutter. He had little formal schooling, but read what was available and studied grammar on his own. He left home when he was twenty, finding employment with neighboring farmers. In 1844 he went to Philadelphia, where he worked at various jobs, including handyman in several households. In 1847 he married Letitia George, who became the mother of his four children. The year of his marriage, Still found employment in the office of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. His duties were janitorial and clerical, but he soon became involved with aiding fugitives from slavery. He was in a unique position to provide board and room for many of the fugitives who rested in Philadelphia before resuming their journey to Canada. One of those former slaves turned out to he his own brother, Peter Still, left in bondage by his mother when she had escaped forty years earlier. William Still later reported that finding his brother led him to preserve the careful records concerning former slaves which provided valuable source material for his book The Underground Railroad (1872). When Philadelphia abolitionists organized a vigilance committee to assist the large numbers of fugitives going through the city after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, they named William Still chairman. John Brown’s wife stayed with the Still family for a time following the Harpers Ferry raid, and several of Brown’s accomplices received aid from Still. Although he concluded his work in the antislavery office in 1861, Still continued his association with the society, serving for eight years as vice-president and president from 1896 to 1901. While working for the abolition society Still began purchasing real estate. During the Civil War he opened a store handling new and used stoves, and later established a very successful coal business. In 1864 he came to Camp William Penn, where Negro soldiers were stationed. Although the executive committee of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery had asked Still to write his book, the work and its publication and distribution were a product of his own effort. His stated purpose was to « encourage the race in efforts of self elevation » He believed that the most eloquent advocates of Negroes were Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and other self-emancipated champions. It was his mission as a Negro to record their heroic deeds and he hoped the book would serve as additional testimony to the intellectual capacity of his race. « We very much need works on various topics from the pens of colored men to represent the race intellectually.’ He told one of his sales agents. Still’s book went into three editions and became the most widely circulated work on the Underground Railroad. He proudly exhibited it at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, a powerful reminder of the condition of Negroes slavery. Still worked in other ways to improve the status of Negroes. In 1855 he traveled to Canada to visit communities where refugees from United States slavery settled. His positive reports counteracted some of the criticism of Negroes in Canada then in circulation. Five years later he cited the examples of successful Negroes in Canada to argue for the emancipation of all slaves. In 1859, he started a campaign to end racial discrimination on Philadelphia railroad cars by exposing the injustice in a letter to the press. Eight years later the campaign ended successfully when the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law forbidding such discrimination. In 1861 Still helped organize and finance a social, civil, and statistical association to collect data about Negroes. When some Philadelphia colored citizens opposed Still’s crusade for equal service on the streetcars, he wrote A Brief Narrative of the Struggle for the Rights of the Colored People of Philadelphia in the City Railway Cars (1867). He helped manage homes for aged Negroes and destitute Negro children, as well as an orphan asylum for the for the children of soldiers and sailors.
He died of heart trouble caused by Bright’s disease, and was survived by his widow, two daughters, and a son.

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