Journal C of Station No. 2 of the Underground Railroad, Agent William Still (excerpt), June 2-29, 1855
In 1852, William Still began recording details about every fugitive slave who he helped escape through the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia. The risks of such an enterprise cannot be overstated. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 threatened enormous repercussions for anyone who aided an escaped slave. Moreover, anyone who found Still's elaborate notes would learn the aliases, former owners, and routes of escape of every fugitive who had passed through Philadelphia. That information would compromise the safety of those listed in his diary. Still understood these risks and kept his journal carefully hidden for years.
When Still began recording the arrivals of fugitive slaves, he believed that the institution of slavery would not end in his lifetime, but he hoped that someday, long after he was dead, his diary would be discovered. Thankfully, Still's prediction was wrong. In 1872, after the conclusion of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Still was able to make his accounts public knowledge. In his book, The Underground Railroad, Still drew on the details he had recorded in his journal to elaborate on the lives and stories of many runaway slaves, in some cases providing updates about their freedom years after he helped them escape. Many of these fugitives remembered Still and sent letters thanking him for his service.
Even though Still did not initially plan to publish his notes, he had always intended that they would preserve the narrative of courage he saw in African American fugitives who were able to escape the South and start new lives. He also hoped his diary would reunite families who had been painfully divided in the slave trade. This goal was inspired by Still's own experience; in 1850 he had met one of his long-lost brothers through the Underground Railroad purely by chance. Still only recognized his brother's identity by interviewing him and hearing details about their mother.
The escape narratives described in Still's journal offer a fascinating perspective on slavery in the 1850s. The records of the fugitives even in this short excerpt demonstrate a wide variety of experiences of enslavement differing motivations for seeking escape. The journal also hints at how difficult it was to keep slave families together. Executing an escape from slavery required incredible fortitude. Not only did fugitives risk being captured and punished, but they often faced the impossible decision of seeking their own freedom at the expense of leaving children and spouses behind. To travel in a large group, especially with children, increased the chances of being caught. Still's own mother made that painful choice years before his birth, when she left behind two sons in order to start a new life in the North.
This document was produced under desperate conditions. At the time that it was created, Still had no idea when, if ever, he could safely publish it. Both the journal's author and its subjects were embroiled in a daily struggle against the threat of intolerance and brutality, but they persevered despite the danger. William Still's diary is crucial evidence of the audacity that the desire for freedom has provided Americans throughout history.
In early 2013, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania began a new digital history project that will explore William Still's Journal C and The Underground Railroad in greater detail. Click here to learn more.
Larry Gara, "William Still and the Underground Railroad," Pennsylvania History 28 (1961): 33-44.
Stephen G. Hall, "To Render the Private Public: William Still and the Selling of 'The Underground Rail Road,'" Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 127 (2003): 35-55.
E. Delorus Preston Jr., "The Genesis of the Underground Railroad," Journal of Negro History 18 (1933): 144-170.
William Still, The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-Breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers, of the Road (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872).
Edward Raymond Turner, "The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 36 (1912): 309-318.