1821 – July 14, 1902
William Still was born free in Burlington County, New Jersey the last of his parents’ 18 children though his exact date of birth is unclear. His father, Levin Steel, was born into slavery but purchased his freedom.
His mother, Sidney, was a fugitive slave who had escaped from a plantation in Maryland. The first time, she escaped with four of her children before they were recaptured and returned to Maryland. Her second attempt was relatively more successful, as she managed to escape with two of the four children, her daughters, and was never recaptured. Though the other two children, her sons, were sold into the deep South of Mississippi. Sidney joined Levin in New Jersey, where she changed her first name to Charity, and they changed the family name to Still for their safety.
Though free, Still’s parents did not attempt to shield him from the true horrors of slavery. Instead, he was aware of his parents’ personal experiences with slavery. He was also aware of the heartbreak of having family members sold away.
Still was unable to attain much beyond a basic formal education but expanded his knowledge through self-education, ultimately learning how to read and write. He worked on his family’s and neighboring farms until his early 20’s before moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1844.
The year 1847 would be very important in Still’s life as it was the year he got married and began formally working in the realm of abolition. Still married Letitia George and the two would go on to raise four children to adulthood, all of whom would become successful in their own rights. Joining the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery as a janitor, Still played an active role in the organization and worked his way up to a clerk position in 1847. Within three years he was chairman of a committee focused on aiding runaway slaves. Some of Still’s work at the Pennsylvania society funded Harriet Tubman’s excursions into the South and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Still had become a conductor on the Underground Railroad. The exact number of individuals Still helped escape to freedom is unknown. But, he made it a point to interview each person and kept carefully guarded records which included their biography, destination, and aliases. During one interview, Still came to realize that he was speaking with Peter, one of his older brothers who had been separated from his mother 40 years earlier.
Despite his limited education, Still became a leading figure in Black Philadelphia society. He used early forms of public relations to protest the segregation of Philadelphia’s public transportation system and waged an eight-year battle that resulted in its desegregation. Still helped to found a school in North Philadelphia and a YMCA for Black youth. He was also an entrepreneur who operated various business ventures such as buying properties, owning a retail stove store, and operating a coal business.
Following the end of the Civil War and slavery, there was no longer any immediate fear of releasing information about the identity or whereabouts of fugitive slaves. William Still’s children encouraged him to release his collection of interviews from the Underground Railroad. In 1872, The Underground Rail Road was published and became one of the key resources for explaining the hidden workings of the Underground Railroad.
Based on Still’s interviews and experiences, the book was also different because it was told from a Black person’s perspective and while it acknowledged the contributions of White abolitionists, it centered on the stories of the escaped slaves. Another innovation was that Still distributed the book through a network of sales agents which he’d built as an example of what could be achieved through fortitude.
Still continued his social and business endeavors, later establishing the Berean Building and Loan Association with his son-in-law. Still was the organization’s first president and oversaw its mission of giving loans to Black people hoping to purchase homes. William Still died in 1902 from a heart condition.
- Lewis, Femi. 2019. “Biography of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad.” ThoughtCo.com. ThoughtCo. August 19, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/william-still-father-of-underground-railroad-45193.
- “Still, William.” 2020. Encyclopedia.com. An Elite CafeMedia Publisher. May 5, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/historians-and-chronicles/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/william-still.
- “William Still, Philadelphia Abolitionist.” n.d. African American Registry. Accessed May 5, 2020. https://aaregistry.org/story/william-still-philadelphia-abolitionist/.
- “William Still: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.” n.d. William Still | National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Accessed May 5, 2020. https://freedomcenter.org/content/william-still.
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