Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

William Still


Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, 1847-1865, Chairman of Vigilance Committee, 1864-1865
One of 18 siblings, and without a formal education, Still moved to Philadelphia to become a janitor and clerk at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1847. While working, he taught himself to read and write. Keenly interested in abolition (his own mother had escaped slavery long before he was born), Still gradually became more involved with the society. One day, while listening to the life story of a former slave who had recently visited the society, Still realized that he was talking to his long-lost brother. They shared specific details about their mutual mother that only a family member would know. From that moment on, Still decided to record information about every fugitive slave he could so that members of other families could unite with one another. By 1864, he was appointed chairman of a "vigilance committee," which helped fugitive slaves find room and board while passing through Philadelphia.
During his tenure as chairman, Still participated in some of the most famous escape stories from the Underground Railroad's history, including that of Henry "Box" Brown, who escaped the South by shipping himself in a crate, and of the Craft family, who disguised themselves as a white plantation owner and slave to avoid detection. In all, Still helped more than 1,000 fugitive slaves escape on the Underground Railroad while working with the vigilance committee.
After the institution of slavery had ended, Still left his job at the Society and started a successful coal business. Even though African Americans were no longer in bondage, Still believed that much of the United States was not well informed about the experience of slavery. He also wanted to prove that blacks were just as brave and intellectually capable as members of any other race. To accomplish this, Still wrote The Underground Railroad (1872), using his diary as a source. To distribute his book, he created a network of salesmen and emotionally charged advertisements that spread across the country. Advances in printing press technology allowed Still to print many versions of his book quickly and efficiently, and he soon left the coal business to publish full-time until he died in 1902.
William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872)
Larry Gara, "William Still and the Underground Railroad," Pennsylvania History 28 (1961): 33-44