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William Still – The Unknown Helper Of The Underground Railroad


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. He directly aided fugitive slaves and kept records of their lives, to help families reunite after slavery was abolished. After the American Civil War, he wrote an account of the underground system and the experiences of many refugee slaves, entitled The Underground Railroad Records, published in 1872.

Who is William Still?

William Still, a free-born Black, became an abolitionist movement leader and writer during the antebellum period in American history.  He was also one of the most successful Black businessmen in the history of the City of Philadelphia.  Born on October 7, 1821, in Burlington County, New Jersey, he was the youngest of eighteen children of Levin and Charity Still.  Both of his parents were born into slavery.  His father bought his freedom and his mother escaped slavery in Maryland.  William Still grew up with vivid images of the horrors of slavery.  His parents instilled in him strong family and work values as well as pride and self-determination.  In 1844, he moved to Philadelphia and in 1847 married Letitia George, who gave birth to their four children.  That year, he was hired as clerk for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.  He became an active agent on the Underground Railroad, assisting fugitive Africans who came to Philadelphia.  With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Still was appointed chairman of the society’s revived Vigilance Committee that aided and supported fugitive Africans.

William Still’s Major Accomplishments

During a period in American history where laws were established prohibiting Blacks, and especially enslaved Africans, to read and to write, one of William Still’s major accomplishments was teaching himself how to read and write. Still had little formal education but read everything available to him and studied grammar.  This act of learning became a form of African resistance to slavery.  He was empowered to document African resistance to slavery as well as to letters to his family and friends and conduct business matters and became a champion of civil rights in the North, working tirelessly to improve race relations.  In 1859, Still wrote a letter to the press protesting the racial discrimination that African Americans faced on Philadelphia streetcars.  In 1867, he published A Brief Narrative of the Struggle for the Rights of Colored People of Philadelphia in the City Railway Cars.


William Still is best known for his self-published book The Underground Railroad (1872) where he documented the stories of formerly enslaved Africans who gained their freedom by escaping bondage.  Still’s The Underground Railroad is the only first person account of Black activities on the Underground Railroad written and self-published by an African American.  He hired agents to sell the book.  His book went through three editions and was exhibited in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.  Still would continue to write.  In 1874, he published An Address on Voting and Laboring where he justified his support for the reform candidate as oppose to the Republican candidate for mayor of Philadelphia.

As an abolitionist movement leader, William Still assisted hundreds of enslaved Africans to escape from slavery.  After a forty year search, he located his brother, Peter Still, and helped him to escape to freedom.  After finding his brother, he kept meticulous records concerning African resistance to slavery by running away.  Still was very courageous and risked his own freedom assisting fugitive Africans.

He was one of the organizers and financiers of the Pennsylvania Civil, Social, and Statistical Association that collected data on freed men and women.  He was an advocate for universal suffrage.  As a successful businessman, he purchased real estate, opened a new and used stove and coal business and eventually a coal yard in 1861.  Because of his reputation, he was named to the Philadelphia Board of Trade and in 1864 appointed to the post of peddler for the provisions of black soldiers at Camp William Penn.   He was a supporter of temperance and organized a mission Sabbath School for the Presbyterian Church.  He also was a member of the Freedmen’s Aid Commission, organized one of the first YMCAs for black youth, and assisted in the management of homes for the aged and destitute black children as well as an orphan asylum for children of black soldiers and sailors.


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