One of William Still’s major accomplishments was teaching himself to read and write in a period when laws prohibited enslaved Africans and black people in general from doing so.
Despite having little formal education, he was able to read everything available to him and studied grammar. This will become useful in his later fight against slavery and racism.
While risking his own freedom to assist fugitive slaves, Still documented the lives and difficulties of the hundreds of runaway slaves he came into contact with.
This produced his popular 1872 book The Underground Railroad, which remains the only first-person account of activities on the Underground Railroad that was written and published by an African American.
The Underground Railroad was a large movement in North America consisting of several individuals who worked together to aid slaves in their escape from their captors.
The freedom network began in the 1830s; there were homes and businesses which became known as “stations” along the route toward the north. These homes provided temporary shelter for fugitive slaves before they continued the rest of their journey.
People like Harriet Tubman who helped these enslaved Africans move from one station to the other were called “conductors.” Still was, however, known as a “station master.”
The Underground Railroad extended to Canada in 1834 after the latter had outlawed slavery. By the end of 1850, the network had helped 10,000 slaves escape to freedom.
Most accounts agree that the stories of the movement would have been lost had it not been the works of Still, who recorded the network’s activities.
Born free on October 7, 1821, in Burlington County, New Jersey, Still was the youngest of 18 children. Both of his parents were born into slavery. His father bought his freedom and his mother escaped slavery, though she had to escape twice after she was caught the first time.
When she finally made it, she had to leave behind two of her children, who were later sold to slave owners in the Deep South.
In the 1840s, Still moved to Philadelphia where he first worked as a janitor for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery (PSAS) before rising to the position of clerk. He later married.
Starting a coal delivery business, Still became a successful man and an important member of the black community in Philadelphia. In 1852, he became chair of PSAS’s Vigilance Committee, assisting fugitive slaves who passed through the city on the Underground Railroad.
His Underground Railroad “station” (home) became a popular stop for fugitive slaves who were making their way towards Canada.
Tubman, one of the popular “conductors”, occasionally stopped by his home during her rescue missions. Still provided shelter and food to many of the runaway slaves, and even funded many of Tubman’s rescue expeditions.
In effect, Still rescued around 800 slaves through his work with the Underground Railroad, earning him the title, “Father of the Underground Railroad.”
Penning down records of the hundreds of fugitive slaves he came into contact with, including the sacrifices they made to escape slavery, Still kept their information hidden until slavery was abolished in 1865.
Seven years after the abolition of slavery, he published his collected interviews with the runaway slaves in his book The Underground Rail Road. One of the interviews was of a fugitive slave named Peter who turned out to be his own brother.
“Being directed to the Anti-Slavery Office for instructions as to the best plan to adopt to find out the whereabouts of his parents,” Still wrote. “Fortunately, he fell into the hands of his own brother, the writer, whom he had never heard of before, much less seen or known.”
Still hired agents to sell his book, which would go through three editions and would be exhibited in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition to “remind visitors of the legacy of slavery in the United States.”
“We very much need works on various topics from the pens of colored men to represent the race intellectually,” Still once said of his book.
Today, his book, which is known worldwide, is important not only because of the records of Still’s incredible feats and the people he helped but also for showing that “Blacks had the intellectual ability” and were fearless individuals who struggled for their own freedom.