William Still (1821-1902), African American abolitionist, philanthropist, and business person, became an important strategist for the Underground Rail road and wrote an account of the hundreds of slaves he aided in their flight to freedom.
William Still was born free on Oct. 7, 1821, in Shamong, Burlington County, N.J. He was the youngest of 18 children born to parents who had been slaves. His father had purchased freedom. His mother had escaped slavery with two of her four children. His parents settled on a 40-acre plot near Medford, N.J.
At the age of 23 and self-taught, Still went to Philadelphia, where he held a number of jobs before joining the staff of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, as janitor and mail clerk. During the 14 years he spent with the society, his responsibilities grew, and he took a special interest in assisting runaway slaves, often boarding them in his home.
In 1852 Still was named chairman of a committee of four acting for the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia. The committee offered financial assistance to escaping slaves, and Still was especially effective in finding board and lodging for them among the black population of Philadelphia.
Still recorded the information he got from interviewing slaves so that he could reunite friends and relatives. During one interview, he discovered that the slave he was trying to help was his own brother, left behind when their mother escaped 40 years before. His careful records later became the documentation for his famous book, The Underground Railroad (1872).
When abolitionist John Brown raided Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859, Still sheltered some of Brown's men who were able to escape the law, as well as some members of Brown's family. Still was constantly in danger of prosecution, and had his detailed records been discovered, they probably would have sent him and other members of the Vigilance Committee to prison. Charges were brought against him several times, but only once was he unable to clear himself, and this was in a civil suit brought by a former slave whose motives and character Still had challenged.
In 1855 Still visited Canada to see how the refugees from slavery who had settled there were faring. He was impressed by their determination and published an account of their achievement. He was also active in civil rights efforts for blacks in the North, especially in Philadelphia. He helped organize and finance a society to collect information on black life, was responsible for the establishment of an orphanage for children of black soldiers and sailors, and organized a Young Men's Christian Association for blacks. Still's book, The Underground Railroad, differs from most accounts of the time in emphasizing the bravery and ingenuity of the escaping slaves rather than the heroism of the railroad's white conductors.
Further Reading on William Still
Sources for biographical information on Still are Wilhelmina S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1967); William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1969); and August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, eds., The Making of Black America (2 vols., 1969).