William Still
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The first full-length biography of William Still, one of the most important leaders of the Underground Railroad.

William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia is the first major biography of the free Black abolitionist William Still, who coordinated the Eastern Line of the Underground Railroad and was a pillar of the Railroad as a whole. Based in Philadelphia, Still built a reputation as a courageous leader, writer, philanthropist, and guide for fugitive enslaved people. This monumental work details Still’s life story beginning with his parents’ escape from bondage in the early nineteenth century and continuing through his youth and adulthood as one of the nation’s most important Underground Railroad agents and, later, as an early civil rights pioneer. Still worked personally with Harriet Tubman, assisted the family of John Brown, helped Brown’s associates escape from Harper’s Ferry after their famous raid, and was a rival to Frederick Douglass among nationally prominent African American abolitionists. Still’s life story is told in the broader context of the anti-slavery movement, Philadelphia Quaker and free black history, and the generational conflict that occurred between Still and a younger group of free black activists led by Octavius Catto.

Unique to this book is an accessible and detailed database of the 995 fugitives Still helped escape from the South to the North and Canada between 1853 and 1861. The database contains twenty different fields—including name, age, gender, skin color, date of escape, place of origin, mode of transportation, and literacy—and serves as a valuable aid for scholars by offering the opportunity to find new information, and therefore a new perspective, on runaway enslaved people who escaped on the Eastern Line of the Underground Railroad. Based on Still’s own writings and a multivariate statistical analysis of the database of the runaways he assisted on their escape to freedom, the book challenges previously accepted interpretations of the Underground Railroad. The audience for William Still is a diverse one, including scholars and general readers interested in the history of the anti-slavery movement and the operation of the Underground Railroad, as well as genealogists tracing African American ancestors.

On August 6, 1850, Peter Freedman, an ex-slave who had recently purchased his freedom, arrived at the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS) in Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love was a nerve center of abolitionist activity due to its large Quaker and free black populations. There he met William Still, a free black abolitionist and director of Philadelphia's General Vigilance Committee (PVC). Freedman, worn down by years of hard labor, looked much older than his fifty years. For more than an hour, the former slave recounted his life's story explaining that he was searching for his mother from whom he had been separated some forty years earlier. Still sat and listened, transfixed by the tragic tale.

According to Freedman, he and his younger brother Levin were "kidnapped" from their mother, who he referred to as "Sidney." "Carried south," Levin died a slave in Alabama, but Peter earned the $500 necessary to purchase his own "ransom" from his owner, a Jewish merchant named Joseph Friedman. With no knowledge of the last names of his mother and father, or where he was born, Peter set out to find his mother. His search took him to Philadelphia where he planned to have notices read in the African American churches of the city in the hope that some of the older members might recall his mother's circumstances.

As Still listened to the stranger's story, he was struck by the similarities to his own mother's past. Charity Still was born, raised and wed in slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She and her husband, Levin, were the young parents of four small children, two boys and two girls. Levin purchased his own freedom, resettled in Burlington County, New Jersey, and became a farmer, hoping to save enough money to secure the manumission of his wife and their children who remained in bondage. Charity and her two daughters rejoined Levin after a successful escape, but were forced to leave behind her two sons, eight-year-old Levin and six-year-old Peter. But the similarities ended there.

Could "Sidney" actually be Charity Still?

Though William was the youngest of the fourteen children Charity had borne in freedom, he was the one most curious about his mother's bondage. That curiosity and, according to family lore, the knowledge that he had two older brothers, who remained in slavery, inspired him to take a job as clerk of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1847.

Indeed, Charity Still had reason to be secretive about her early life. After she escaped, she changed her name from "Sidney" in order to protect her safety and that of her rescued daughters. At the same time, she remained heart-broken over the two sons she had left behind.

Listening to Peter's tale, William couldn't help but notice the facial resemblance between Freedman and his mother. "I could see in the face of my new-found brother the likeness of my mother," he wrote of the moment he realized that Peter was the older brother he had never met. "My feelings were unutterable."

The next day, the two brothers traveled to Burlington, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, where Peter was reunited with his eighty-year-old mother. Four years later, Peter, with William's help, freed his wife and three children who he left behind in slavery. They settled on a ten-acre farm in Burlington, where Peter lived until he died in 1868.

The reunion with his long-lost brother Peter reinforced Still's commitment to assist fugitives who also longed to be reunited with their families. To that end, he and his wife, Letitia George, often hid runaways in their own home at 832 South Street. He also communicated with dozens of station masters and conductors. With their assistance, Still coordinated the movements of hundreds of fugitives along the Eastern Line of the Underground Railroad from Northern Virginia to Canada. Although his activities were in direct violation of the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Still assisted nearly 1,000 slaves to freedom between 1853 and 1861. In the process, he earned the endearing moniker, "Angel at Philadelphia.”


About the Author

List of Illustrations


1. The Price of Freedom

2. Quaker Philadelphia

3. Underground Railroad

4. Fugitive Slave Law

5. Vigilance

6. Bondswoman’s Escape

7. “Dear Friends”

8. Canada West

9. Kidnapped & Ransomed

10. Memorable 28

11. Fighting for Freedom

12. Street Car Protest

13. Politics of Reform

14. Legacy


Appendix: Index of Still’s Runaways




Publié par
Date de parution 01 avril 2021
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9780268200381
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,1750€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


Frontispiece. William Still (1821–1902), chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and coordinator of the Underground Railroad’s Eastern Line. (Wood engraving, ca. 1865. William Still, The Underground Railroad [Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1872].)


University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana
Copyright © 2021 by the University of Notre Dame
Published by the University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556
All Rights Reserved
Published in the United States of America
Library of Congress Control Number: 2020950362
ISBN: 978-0-268-20036-7 (Hardback)
ISBN: 978-0-268-20037-4 (WebPDF)
ISBN: 978-0-268-20038-1 (Epub)
This e-Book was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at undpress@nd.edu
This book was selected as the 2021 Giles Family Fund Recipient. The University of Notre Dame Press and the author thank the Giles family for their generous support.
Giles Family Fund Recipients 2019 The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump , Robert Schmuhl 2020 Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living , Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn 2021 William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia , William C. Kashatus
The Giles Family Fund supports the work and mission of the University of Notre Dame Press to publish books that engage the most enduring questions of our time. Each year the endowment helps underwrite the publication and promotion of a book that sparks intellectual exploration and expands the reach and impact of the university.
To the memory of
who inspired me, and to my colleagues
at the Chester County Historical Society,
who sustained me.
To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the One who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What He opens, no one will shut; and what He shuts, no one will open. I know your deeds. I have placed before you an open door, which no one can shut.
—Revelation 3:7–8
List of Figures List of Tables Acknowledgments Introduction ONE The Price of Freedom TWO Quaker Philadelphia THREE The Underground Railroad FOUR The Fugitive Slave Act FIVE Vigilance SIX The Bondswoman’s Escape SEVEN “Dear Friends” EIGHT Canada West NINE Kidnapped and Ransomed TEN The Memorable 28 ELEVEN Fighting for Freedom TWELVE The Streetcar Protest THIRTEEN The Politics of Reform FOURTEEN Legacy Appendix: Database of Runaway Slaves Interviewed by William Still, 1853–61 Abbreviations Notes Bibliography Index
Frontispiece. William Still, ca. 1865 Figure 1.1. Sidney “Charity” Still Figure 1.2. Advertisement for runaway slave Figure 2.1. J. Miller McKim Figure 2.2. Benjamin Lay Figure 2.3. William Lloyd Garrison, ca. 1870 Figure 2.4. Lucretia Mott Figure 2.5. Progressive Friends Meeting House Figure 3.1. Resurrection of Henry “Box” Brown Figure 3.2. National Underground Railroad routes and runaway slave escape routes Figure 3.3. Ellen Craft disguised as a young slave master Figure 3.4. William Craft Figure 3.5. Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad routes Figure 3.6. Robert Purvis Figure 4.1. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, ca. 1848 Figure 4.2. 1850 Compromise Map Figure 4.3. The Christiana Resistance Figure 5.1. Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, 1852 Figure 6.1. Jane Johnson Figure 6.2. Escape of Jane Johnson Figure 6.3. Passmore Williamson in Moyamensing Prison Figure 7.1. Thomas Garrett, ca. 1850 Figure 7.2. Isaac Mendenhall Figure 7.3. Dinah Mendenhall Figure 7.4. John Cox Figure 7.5. Hannah Cox Figure 7.6. Chester County, Pennsylvania, Underground Railroad routes Figure 7.7. John Vickers Figure 7.8. Elijah Pennypacker Figure 7.9. Harriet Tubman Figure 8.1. Mary Ann Shadd Cary Figure 9.1. Peter Still Figure 9.2. Seth Concklin’s escape route Figure 11.1. Judge Roger B. Taney Figure 11.2. John Brown Figure 11.3. Frederick Douglass Figure 11.4. US Colored Troops recruitment poster, 1864 Figure 12.1. Octavius Catto Figure 13.1. Jacob C. White Jr. Figure 14.1. W. E. B. Du Bois Figure 14.2. Booker T. Washington
Table 5.1. Philadelphia’s Underground Railroad network Table 5.2. Year of escape Table 5.3. Month/season of escape Table 5.4. Means of escape Table 5.5. Means of escape by season Table 6.1. Female escapes: individual versus group Table 6.2. Age and gender of runaways Table 6.3. Skin color of runaways Table 7.1. Underground Railroad agents Table 9.1. Slave owners Table 9.2. Cash values of runaways based on age Table 9.3. Cash rewards offered for runaways based on age Table 10.1. Groups of escaping slaves Table 10.2. Largest group escapes Table 10.3. Number of runaways by state Table 10.4. Number of runaways by county, for Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware

This book would not have come to fruition without the inspiration, guidance, and encouragement of many individuals. At the top of the list is the late James McGowan, an African American historian and dear friend who inspired my initial interest in the Underground Railroad. His work on Quaker stationmaster Thomas Garrett brought us together when I was a high school student. Over the years, Garrett and Jim’s interest in Harriet Tubman continued to provide many hours of fruitful conversation on our travels to history conferences in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. In 2005, Jim began working on a database of the 995 fugitive slaves who came under the care of William Still. When he became ill and it was clear that he would not be able to complete the database or the study, he asked that I complete the project and find a publisher. Sadly, Jim died in 2008. I will always be grateful for his friendship and collegiality.
I am also grateful to my colleagues at the Chester County Historical Society, where I worked from 1998 to 2003, specifically Roland Woodward, Barbara Jobe, Susanne Halstead, Michael Dolan, Sarah Wesley, Pam Powell, Ellen Endslow, Rob Lukens, Diane and Laurie Rofini, and Sanderson Caesar. Without their constant support and guidance, I would not have been able to pursue my dream of curating Just over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad . Despite my constant pestering, complaining, and cajoling, these folks created the first multimedia exhibition in the nation. Not only was the exhibit recognized by the Journal of American History as a “first rate exhibit and model of outreach to the local community,” but it also won the American Association of Local Historical Societies and Museums 2005 Award of Merit. Pam, Diane, and Laurie also encouraged my work on William Still and helped me find material for it.
I hope my colleagues at CCHS will accept this book dedication as a small token of my appreciation for all they did to inspire and sustain my interest in—which later became my passion for—the Underground Railroad. I am grateful to others as well.
When I left CCHS in 2003, I was compelled to abandon my plans for writing a biography of William Still for many years. Family responsibilities, a job change that took me out of the Philadelphia area, and life itself intervened until the spring of 2016, when I was able to take a sabbatical and focus entirely on this project. I am grateful to Janis Wilson Seeley, chair of the Social Sciences / History Department at Luzerne County Community College, as well as Dana Clark, dean of faculty, and President Tom Leary, as well as the Board of Trustees for granting me that opportunity.
Special thanks are also due to Spencer Crew of George Washington University, Lois Horton of George Mason University, Phil Lapsansky of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Tom Hamm of the Quaker Archives at Earlham College, and Christopher Densmore of Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College for reviewing and commenting on earlier drafts of the manuscript; Doug Uhlmann of the William Penn Charter School for reviewing and offering suggestions on the statistical data; Aslaku Berhanu of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University; Krystal Appiah of the Library Company of Philadelphia; the entire staff of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for their assistance in making available to me various editions of Still’s The Underground Railroad , Journal C, and other manuscripts, images, and secondary sources pertaining to his personal and professional life; and Eli Bortz, editor-in-chief at the University of Notre Dame Press, and his production team, especially Elisabeth Magnus, who strengthened the original manuscript with her personal insight and editorial expertise.
Finally, I am grateful to my parents, William and Balbina, and to my spouse, Jackie, and our three sons, Tim, Peter, and Ben. Few men admit to having heroes. I am fortunate to have been raised by, to be married to, and to have fathered mine. The love I have for them is eternal.
On August 6, 1850, Peter Freedman, an ex-slave who had recently purchased his freedom, arrived at the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS) in Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love was a nerve center of abolitionist activity because of its large Quaker and free black populations. There he met William Still, a free black abolitionist and mail clerk at the PASS. Freedman, worn down by years of hard labor, looked much older than his fifty years. For more than an hour, the forme

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