William Still

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William Still
William Still abolitionist.jpg
Born (1821-10-07)October 7, 1821
Shamong Township
Died July 14, 1902(1902-07-14) (aged 80)
Nationality American
Occupation Abolitionist
Known for Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, The Underground Railroad Records
Spouse(s) Letitia George

William Still (October 7, 1821 – July 14, 1902) was an African-American abolitionist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, conductor on the Underground Railroad, businessman, writer, historian and civil rights activist. Before the American Civil War, Still was chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and directly aided fugitive slaves and kept records to help families reunite. After the war, he remained an important businessman and philanthropist, as well as used his meticulous records to write an account of the underground system and the experiences of many refugee slaves, entitled The Underground Railroad Records(1872).

Family[edit]

William Still was born October 7, 1821 (or November 1819),[1] in Shamong Township, Burlington County, New Jersey to Sidney (later renamed Charity) and Levin Still.[2] 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 and moved north to New Jersey.

His mother, Charity, escaped twice from Maryland. The first time, she and four children were all recaptured and returned to slavery. A few months later, Charity escaped again, taking only her two younger daughters with her and reached her husband in New Jersey. Following her escape, Charity and Levin had 14 more children, of whom William was the youngest. Though these children were born in the free state of New Jersey, under Maryland and federal slave law, they were still legally slaves, as their mother was an escaped slave. According to New Jersey law, they were free.[3]

However, neither Charity nor Levin could free their older boys, who remained enslaved. Levin, Jr. and Peter Still were sold from Maryland to slave owners in Lexington, Kentucky. Later they were resold to planters in Alabama in the Deep South. Levin, Jr. died from a whipping while enslaved. Peter and most of his family escaped from slavery when he was about age 50, with the help of two brothers named Friedman, who operated mercantile establishments in Florence, Alabama, and Cincinnati, Ohio. They were the subject of a book published in 1856.[4][5] Peter Still sought help at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to find his parents or other members of his birth family. Thus he met William Still, but had no idea they were related. However, William listened to Peter's story, and recognized the history his mother had told him many times. After learning 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 were reunited after having been separated for 42 years.[6]

Another of William's brothers was James Still. Born in New Jersey in 1812, James wanted to become a doctor but said he "was not the right color to enter where such knowledge was dispensed." 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", as he lived and practiced in the Pine Barrens. James's son, James Thomas Still, completed his dream, graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1871.[3]

William’s other siblings included Levin, Jr.; Peter; James; Samuel; Mary, a teacher and missionary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Mahala (who married Gabriel Thompson); and Kitturah, who moved to Pennsylvania.

Marriage and children[edit]

In 1844, William Still moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1847, the year he was hired as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, Still married Letitia George. They had four children who survived infancy.[7] Their oldest was Caroline Virginia 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 leaders .

William Wilberforce Still (1854–1932) 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 (1857–1943) 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., his wife, and Frances Ellen all lived in the same household as the elderly William Still and his wife, confirming the custom that extended families lived together.[8]

Activism[edit]

Abolitionism[edit]

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.[7] 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.[9] He kept lobbying and, in 1865, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law to integrate streetcars across the state.[10]

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, which he had learned when he aided his own brother Peter, whom he had never met before.

Still worked with other Underground Railroad agents operating in the South, including in Virginia ports, nearby Delaware and Maryland, 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. Still also forged a connection with the family of John Brown, and sheltered several of Brown's associates fleeing the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.[2]

American Civil War and aftermath[edit]

During American Civil War, Still operated the post exchange at Camp William Penn, the training camp for United States Colored Troops north of Philadelphia. He also opened a stove store and, in 1861 bought a coal yard and operated a coal delivery business, which continued after the war.[10][11]

In 1867, Still published A Brief Narrative of the Struggle for the Rights of Colored People of Philadelphia in the City Railway Cars.[12]

In 1872, Still published an account of the Underground Railroad, The Underground Railroad Records, based on the carefully recorded secret notes he had kept in diaries during those years. His book includes his impressions of station masters such as Thomas Garrett, Daniel Gibbons and Abigail Goodwin. It went through three editions and in 1876 was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.[8][13] Historians have since used it to understand how the Underground Railroad worked; both Project Gutenberg[14] and the Internet archive[15] make the text freely available.

Businessman and philanthropist[edit]

After the war, Still continued as an active businessman, philanthropist and social activist in the Philadelphia metropolitan areas.

In addition to the ongoing coal business, Still owned considerable real estate, including Liberty Hall, for some time the largest public hall in the US owned by a black man. He owned stock in the journal the Nation, was a member of Philadelphia's Board of Trade, and financed and was officer of the Social and Civil Statistical Association of Philadelphia (which in part tracked freed people).[12]

Still also remained active in the Colored Conventions Movement, having attended national conventions including the New England Colored Citizens' Convention of 1859, where Still advocated equal educational opportunities for all African Americans.[11] He also advocated temperance. He was a member of the Freedmen's Aid Union and Commission, an officer of the Philadelphia Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, and an elder in the Presbyterian church (where he established Sabbath Schools to promote literacy including among freed blacks).[2]

He 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.[16][17] In addition to continuing as member of the board for the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home and the Home for the Destitute Colored Children, Still became a trustee at Storer College.

Death, legacy and honors[edit]

William Still died on July 14, 1902, survived by his wife Letitia and daughter Caroline, as well as grandchildren and other relatives. He was buried in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, as would later be his wife and daughter.[18] Founded just a month before Still's death, Eden Cemetery is now the nation's oldest African-American owned cemetery, and on the National Register of Historic Places since 2010.[19]

Descendants[edit]

Family members donated his papers, including personal papers 1865-1899, to the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University Library, where they remain accessible to researchers.

Brothers Peter, James and William Still later moved with their families to Lawnside, New Jersey, a community developed and owned by African Americans in Camden County, New Jersey across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. 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.

National Underground Railroad Network[edit]

In 1997, Congress passed H.R. 1635, which President Bill Clinton signed into law, and which 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.[20] This also affirmed Still's national importance as a leading Underground Railroad agent in a major center of abolition.[13]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ 1900 US Census Record.
  2. ^ a b c Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. GM Rewell & Company, 1887, pp. 149–161.
  3. ^ a b "James Still", Still Family, Library, Temple University.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ "Peter Still", Still Family, Library, Temple University.
  6. ^ Lurey Khan, William Still and the Underground Railroad: Fugitive Slaves and Family Ties, iUniverse, 2010, p. 40.
  7. ^ a b http://stillfamily.library.temple.edu/historical-perspective/william-still-significance
  8. ^ a b Underground Railroad: The William Still Story, PBS.
  9. ^ "William Still, Darby, and the Desegregation of Philadelphia Streetcars", Darby History.
  10. ^ a b "Timeline: The Life and Times of William Still (1821-1902)", William Still: an African-American Abolitionist, Library, Temple University, accessed January 16, 2017.
  11. ^ a b Turner, Diane. "William Still: An African-American Abolitionist". Temple University Libraries. Retrieved January 16, 2017. 
  12. ^ a b http://stillfamily.library.temple.edu/content/brief-narrative-struggle-right
  13. ^ a b Turner, Diane. "William Still's National Significance", William Still: An African-American Abolitionist, website, Temple University, accessed March 1, 2014.
  14. ^ http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15263
  15. ^ https://archive.org/stream/undergroundrailr00stil/undergroundrailr00stil_djvu.txt
  16. ^ Khan (2010), p. 214.
  17. ^ Chenrow, Fred; Chenrow, Carol (1974). Reading Exercises in Black History, Elizabethtown, PA: The Continental Press, Inc., p. 56. ISBN 978-0-8454-2108-6.
  18. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=11212035
  19. ^ https://www.nps.gov/nr/listings/20101223.htm
  20. ^ https://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/index.htm

Further reading[edit]

  • Bentley, Judith. "Dear Friend" Thomas Garrett & William Still Collaborators on the Underground Railroad. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1997.
  • Gara, Larry. "William Still and the Underground Railroad," Pennsylvania History 28.1 (January 1961): 33-44.
  • Still, William (1872). Earnest in the cause; John Needles. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates
  • 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.
  • Turner, Diane. "William Still: An African-American Abolitionist." Temple University Libraries.

External links[edit]