Snapshot William Still Biography

“Three figures moved stealthily through the night looking ghostly in the flat white light of the moon. As they moved toward a house at Fifth and Arch streets a door opened and an alert brown face showed for a moment in the moonlight.

‘How many,’ a voice asked in almost a whisper.

‘Two,’ came the crisp reply.

‘Step in,’ the host ordered rather than invited.

One of the three figures pushed the other two through the door, turned and fled in the night.

Locking and barring the door, the host guided the two strangers through a darkened interior, down a flight of steps and turned up a lamp.

‘Glad to see you, brothers,’ the host said turning towards his frightened guests. ‘I am William Still. I work for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. You’ll be safe here, and can rest for the night before continuing your journey.'”

William Still was born the youngest of eighteen siblings in 1821 in Shamong Township, New Jersey. Both of his parents had been enslaved. But by his birth, his father, Levin, was free after purchasing his freedom. And William’s mother, Sidney, was free, too. Though her freedom resulted from escaping, and she had to live discreetly to ensure the family’s safety as the Fugitive Slave Act posed a continuous threat.

William was raised in New Jersey, where while life in a free state meant he did not directly experience enslavement, he grew up with stories of his parents and sibling’s suffering. The stories and family member’s scars left a lasting impression.

From a young age, William was taught the importance of hard work and education. William learned to read and write on his own. The reading helped him cultivate a deeper understanding of the world around him.

In 1844, seeking better opportunities, William moved to Philadelphia, a hub of anti-slavery activities. Here, William found employment and became involved in the abolitionist movement. In 1847, he became a janitor and clerk for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. This role placed him at the center of the abolitionist movement, where he became acquainted with other prominent abolitionists.

William’s involvement with the Underground Railroad soon grew. He was appointed Chairman of a group set up to help people escaping enslavement. Amongst many responsibilities, William opened his home, offering shelter, food and aid for the people, some of whom “came in coffins, others in packing cases shipped as freight. Many underwent untold suffering and deprivations facing unbelievable horrors to secure freedom.”

As the runaways stayed in his home, William talked to them about their lives, documenting detailed accounts of their stories, including their names, where they came from, the families they left behind, and where they were heading. These records were risky to maintain due to the prevailing Fugitive Slave Act, but William understood the importance of preserving these narratives.

In 1872, William published “The Underground Railroad Records,” a compendium of the stories and experiences of the 649 fugitives he had helped gain their freedom.

About the book, William wrote,

“The race must not forget the rock from whence they were hewn, nor the pit from whence, they were digged. Like other races, this newly emancipated people will need all the knowledge of their past condition which they can get.”

This publication is a significant historical and genealogical resource and offers insight into the lives of enslaved people and the operation of the Underground Railroad. His meticulous record-keeping of the people he helped is considered one of the most crucial historical documents about the Underground Railroad.

In his later years, William continued advocating for African-American rights and was involved in various civil rights activities. He was also a successful businessman and prominent in Philadelphia’s African-American community.

William passed away on July 14, 1902.

Black and white portrait of William Still, an African American abolitionist and businessman. He is depicted wearing a formal three-piece suit with a tie, presenting a confident and composed expression. His hair is cropped close to the head and he has a clean-shaven face. The background is plain, highlighting his visage.
William Still

Notes

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Snapshot William Still Biography Sources

  • Mitchell, Frances Waters. “WILLIAM STILL.” Negro History Bulletin, vol. 5, no. 3, 1941, pp. 50–51. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44246634. Accessed 27 Sept. 2023.
  • Gara, Larry. “WILLIAM STILL AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, 1961, pp. 33–44. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27770004. Accessed 27 Sept. 2023.
  • Hall, Stephen G. “To Render the Private Public: William Still and the Selling of ‘The Underground Rail Road.’” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 127, no. 1, 2003, pp. 35–55. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093599. Accessed 27 Sept. 2023.
  • Still, William. The underground rail road. A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, &c., narrating the hardships, hairbreadth escapes and death struggles of the slaves in their efforts for freedom. Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, 1872.