William Still

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William Still (1821–1902)

William Still (October 7, 1821 – July 14, 1902) was an African-American abolitionist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, conductor on the Underground Railroad, writer, historian and civil rights activist. He was chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, who directly aided fugitives slaves.

Early life and family[edit]

William Still was born October 7, 1821 in Burlington County, New Jersey, to Sidney (later renamed Charity) and Levin Still. His parents had come to New Jersey separately. First his father bought his freedom in 1798 from his master in Caroline County, Maryland on the Eastern Shore. There he and Charity had used the surname Steel. Levin eventually settled in Evesham near Medford. His mother followed him, having escaped with two of their younger children.[1] William and 13 of his siblings were born in the free state of New Jersey but under Maryland and federal slave law, they were still legally slaves as they were children of an escaped enslaved mother. According to New Jersey law, they were free.

His siblings included Levin Jr, Peter Still, who had been left behind in Maryland and were sold into the Deep South; James Still (1812–84), known as "the Doctor of the Pines;" Samuel, Mary Still, a teacher and missionary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Mahala (who married Gabriel Thompson), and Kitturah Still, who moved to Pennsylvania.

Charity had escaped twice from Maryland, the first time with their four children. They were recaptured and returned to slavery. The second time, she took only her two younger daughters north and reached her husband in New Jersey. The two older sons she left behind, Levin Jr. and Peter, were sold from Maryland to slaveowners in Lexington, Kentucky. Later they were resold to planters in Alabama in the Deep South. Following her escape to New Jersey, Charity had 14 more children with her husband Levin, of whom William was the youngest.

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1844, William Still moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1847, he married Letitia George. William and Letitia had four children who survived infancy. Their oldest was Caroline Matilda Still (1848–1919), a pioneer female medical doctor. Caroline attended Oberlin College and the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia (much later known as the Medical College of Pennsylvania). She married Edward J. Wyley and, after his death, the Reverend Matthew Anderson, longtime pastor of the Berean Presbyterian Church in North Philadelphia. She had an extensive private medical practice in Philadelphia and was also a community activist, teacher and leader.

William Wilberforce Still (1854–1914) graduated from Lincoln University and subsequently practiced law in Philadelphia. Robert George Still (1861–1896) became a journalist and owned a print shop on Pine at 11th Street in central Philadelphia. Frances Ellen Still (1857–1930) became a kindergarten teacher (she was named after poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who had lived with the Stills before her marriage). According to the 1900 U.S. Census, William W. and his wife, and Ellen, were living in the household of the elderly Still and his wife.[2] It was customary for extended family to live together.


William Still became an abolitionist, a member of the biracial [[Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society]. He was devoted to civil rights and advancing the cause of African Americans, both free and slave.


In 1847, three years after settling in Philadelphia, Still began working as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. When Philadelphia abolitionists organized a Vigilance Committee to directly aid escaped slaves who had reached the city, Still became its chairman. By the 1850s, Still was one of the leaders of Philadelphia's African-American community.

In 1855 he participated in the nationally covered rescue of Jane Johnson, a slave who sought help from the Society in gaining freedom while passing through Philadelphia with her master John Hill Wheeler, newly appointed US Minister to Nicaragua. Still and others liberated her and her two sons under Pennsylvania law, which held that slaves brought to the free state voluntarily by a slaveholder could choose freedom. Her master sued him and five other African Americans for assault and kidnapping in a high-profile case in August 1855. Jane Johnson returned to Philadelphia from New York and testified in court as to her independence in choosing freedom, winning acquittal for Still and four others, and reduced sentences for the last two.

In 1859 Still challenged the segregation of the city's public transit system, which had separate seating for whites and blacks.[3] He kept lobbying and, in 1865 the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law to integrate the streetcars across the state.[1]

He opened a stove store during the American Civil War, and operated the post exchange at Camp William Penn, the training camp for United States Colored Troops north of Philadelphia. After the war, Still owned and operated a coal delivery business.[1]

Underground Railroad[edit]

Often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad", Still helped as many as 800 slaves escape to freedom. He interviewed each person and kept careful records, including a brief biography and the destination for each, along with any alias adopted. He kept his records carefully hidden but knew the accounts would be critical in aiding the future reunion of family members who became separated under slavery.

One of the fugitive slaves he helped was his own older brother Peter, whom he had never met before. Peter and another brother had been sold to another owner after his mother had escaped with him and three other of her children, after they were recaptured. She later escaped again, taking two daughters with her and successfully reaching New Jersey, where she was reunited with her husband. Peter escaped to Philadelphia and sought help to be reunited with his birth family.

Still worked with other Underground Railroad agents operating in the South and in many counties in southern Pennsylvania. His network to freedom also included agents in New Jersey, New York, New England and Canada. Conductor Harriet Tubman traveled through his office with fellow passengers on several occasions during the 1850s.

After the Civil War, Still published an account of the Underground Railroad, based on the secret notes he'd kept in diaries during those years. His book has been integral to the history of these years, as he carefully recorded many details of the workings of the Underground Railroad.[4] He is one of the many who helped fugitive slaves (known as refugees in Canada) escape from the southern United States.

Youth organizations[edit]

Still had a strong interest in the welfare of black youth. He helped to establish an orphanage and the first YMCA for African Americans in Philadelphia.[5][6][page needed]


As noted above, Still's older brothers Levin Jr. and Peter were sold to planters in the Deep South after they and their mother was captured in an early escape from Maryland. Levin Still, Jr. died while enslaved. Peter Still and most of his family escaped from slavery with the help of two brothers named Friedman, who operated mercantile establishments in Florence, Alabama and Cincinnati, Ohio. Kate E. R. Pickard wrote about Peter Still and his family in her book, The Kidnapped and the Ransomed: Recollections of Peter Still and his Wife "Vina," After Forty Years of Slavery, (1856).[7][8]

After reaching Philadelphia, Peter sought help at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to find members of his birth family. When they first met, he and William Still had no idea they were related. But, as William listened to Peter's story, he recognized the history his mother had told him many times. After hearing that his older brother Levin was whipped to death for visiting his wife without permission, William shouted, "What if I told you I was your brother!" Later Peter and his mother met after having been separated for 42 years.[6][page needed]

Another of their brothers was James Still. Born in 1812, James wanted to become a doctor but said he "was not the right color to enter where such knowledge was dispensed".[9] James studied herbs and plants and apprenticed himself to a white doctor to learn medicine. He became known as the "Black Doctor of the Pines". James' son, James Thomas Still, graduated from Harvard's School of Medicine in 1871.[9]

The three brothers: William, James, and Peter, later moved with their families to Lawnside, New Jersey, a town developed and owned by African Americans. To this day, their descendants have an annual family reunion every August. Notable members of the Still family include the composer William Grant Still, professional WNBA basketball player Valerie Still, professional NFL defensive end Art Still, and professional NFL defensive tackle Devon Still.


His account of The Underground Railroad (1872) has been considered an invaluable resource, as he recorded critical details of so many "passengers." His book is a history of the range of ingenuity and creativity of the persons who escaped to freedom. (It is available as a free e-text on Project Gutenberg.) It went through three editions and in 1876 was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.[10]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University Library houses William Still Papers dating from 1865 through 1899.
  • H.R. 1635, passed by Congress in 1997, authorized the United States National Park Service to establish the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program to identify associated sites and popularize the Underground Railroad. The program also affirmed the national importance of William Still, a leading Underground Railroad agent in a major center of abolition.[10]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Stand by the River (2003), a musical based on his life and rescue of Jane Johnson, was written and composed by Joanne and Mark Sutton-Smith. It has been produced in New York and Chicago, and at universities and other venues across the country.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Timeline: The Life and Times of William Still (1821-1902)", William Still: an African-American Abolitionist, Library, Temple University, accessed 1 March 2014
  2. ^ "William Still", Underground Railroad, PBS-WNED
  3. ^ "William Still, Darby, and the Desegregation of Philadelphia Streetcars", Darby History
  4. ^ "The William Still Story", PBS: Underground Railroad
  5. ^ Chenrow, Fred; Chenrow, Carol (1974). Reading Exercises in Black History, Elizabethtown, PA: The Continental Press, Inc. p.56. ISBN 08454-2105-5.
  6. ^ a b Lurey Khan, William Still and the Underground Railroad: Fugitive Slaves and Family Ties
  7. ^ Kate E. R. Pickard, The Kidnapped and the Ransomed: Recollections of Peter Still and his Wife "Vina," After Forty Years of Slavery, (1856), available online at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina
  8. ^ "Peter Still", Still Family, Library, Temple University
  9. ^ a b "James Still", Still Family, Library, Temple University
  10. ^ a b Dr. Diane Turner, "William Still's National Significance", William Still: An African-American Abolitionist, website, Temple University, accessed 1 March 2014

Further reading[edit]

  • Gara, Larry. "William Still and the Underground Railroad," Pennsylvania History 28.1 (January 1961): 33-44.
  • Still, William. Still's Underground Rail Road Records: with a Life of the Author: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom: Together with Sketches of Some of the Eminent Friends of Freedom, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road, Philadelphia: William Still, 1886.

External links[edit]