The Father of the Underground Railroad

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UndergroundBy Nicolle S. A. Lyon

In this year, the hundredth anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at someone who had a large impact on her success.  Although he is not as well-known, William Still, helped over 800 slaves escape to freedom.  William was only a boy when he helped the first slave, never knowing anything about him.  In the future, he would keep meticulous records of those he assisted, making sure their stories would never be forgotten.  And, he showed the woman known as Moses the ends and outs of the Underground network.

Born to Levin and Charity Still in Medford (Burlington County), New Jersey on October 7, 1821 William Still was the youngest of eighteen children.  William’s father, born into slavery, purchased his own freedom and was manumitted in 1798 (Caroline County, MD) and migrated to New Jersey.  Levin changed his last name from Steel to Still and settled in Evesham.  Charity (Sidney Steel), also born into slavery, later escaped with the couple’s four children, joining her husband in New Jersey before being recaptured.  Although Charity and her children were returned to slavery, she escaped again this time with her two daughters.  Forced to leave her two sons (Levin and Peter), Charity Still was reunited with her husband in Burlington, New Jersey.  Meanwhile, Levin and Peter were sold further south to Lexington, KY and later Alabama.  Charity and Levin went on to have fourteen more children.

William did not have much formal education, but studied whenever he could.  At twenty-six (1847) three years after moving to Philadelphia, William married Letitia George.  Only four of the couple’s children survived infancy.  Caroline Matilda Still (1848-1919) became a pioneering medical doctor.  William Wilberforce Still (1864-1914) became a lawyer.  Robert George Still (1861-1896) was a journalist.  And, Frances Ellen Still (1875-1930) taught kindergarten.

In Philadelphia, William began working as a clerk and janitor for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS).  He received a salary of $3.75/week.  Established by James Mott, Lucretia Coffin Mott and Robert Purvis, PASS promoted both racial equality and equality for the sexes.  James Mott (June 20, 1788 – January 26, 1868) and his wife Lucetia Coffin Mott (January 3, 1793 – November 11, 1880) were Quakers.  While Robert Purvis (August 4, 1810 – April 15, 1898) was born in Charleston, SC to William Purvis (an English immigrant) and Harriet Judah (a free woman of color).  Robert and his bothers inherited considerable wealth from their father.  Educated at Amherst College (Massachusetts) Robert used his own house as a station on the Underground Railroad.

While in Philadelphia, William was introduced to Harriet Tubman, a newly escaped slave.  William and PASS taught Harriet, who used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery, the inner workings of the Eastern line of the Underground network.  And, Harriet went on to help over three hundred slaves gain their freedom despite the $40,000 bounty on her – dead or alive.

Meanwhile, William Still remained one of the busiest conductors on the Underground Railroad.  As he guided over eight hundred slaves to freedom, William kept careful records of the destinations and adopted aliases of those who passed through his Philadelphia station.  One of those William guided to freedom was his brother Peter whom his mother was forced to leave behind forty years before.  “It was my good fortune to lend a helping hand to the weary travelers flying from the land of bondage,” William once stated.

With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, William risked steep fines, civil penalties and imprisonment by assisting fugitive slaves.  Slaves had to be transported to Canada to guarantee their safety.  William made several trips to Canada, to ex-slave communities, using their success to argue for emancipation in the United States.  Fearing that his records would be used to prosecute people, William was forced to hide his diaries in a grave – even destroying some of the records before the Civil War.

When abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the Federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (October 16, 1859), William used his house to hide Brown’s family.  In 1865, during the Civil War, William served as a volunteer for the Union Army.

William later ran a successful coal and stove business, established an orphanage for the children of African-American Civil War veterans, and became one of the original stock holders in The Nation magazine.  He was, also, elected to the Philadelphia Board of Trade.  In 1867, William led a successful campaign to end segregation on Philadelphia trolley cars.  Then, in 1884, he started the Berean Presbyterian Church.  And, four years later, William opened a savings and loan.

After the war, William was persuaded by his children to write a book about those he guided to freedom.  The Underground Railroad, published in 1872, chronicled William Still’s exploits and remains one of the most important historical records we have of the Underground Railroad and the slaves who passed through.  On July 14, 1902 William Still died of kidney failure.

 

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