William Still, Philadelphia abolitionist


William Still
Date: 
Sun, 1821-10-07

*William Still was born on this date in 1821. He was a Black abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad, writer, historian and activist.

The date of William Still's birth is used by the Registry and by most sources, though he gave the date of November 1819 in the 1900 Census. He was born in Burlington County, New Jersey, to Charity and Levin Still. His parents had come to New Jersey from the eastern shore of Maryland as freed-slaves. He was the youngest of eighteen siblings. His father was the first of the family to move to New Jersey when he purchased his own freedom. He settled in Springtown near Medford and later Charity joined the family with their four children, when she escaped. Charity was recaptured and returned to slavery, but she escaped a second time and, with her two daughters, found her way to Burlington County, to join her husband. The two sons she left behind were sold to slave-owners in Mississippi, in the Deep South.

In 1844, William Still moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he began working as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. In 1847 he married Letitia George and had four children who survived infancy. When Philadelphia abolitionists organized a committee to aid runaway slaves reaching Philadelphia, Still became its chairman. By the 1850s, he was a leader of Philadelphia's Black community. In 1859 he attempted to desegregate the city's public transit system. He opened a stove store during the American Civil War, and later started a coal delivery business. Often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad," Still helped as many as 60 slaves a month escape to freedom, interviewing each person and keeping careful records, including a brief biography and the destination of each person, along with any alias that they adopted, though he kept his records carefully hidden. After the Civil War, Still published the secret notes he’d kept in diaries during those years, and his book is a source of many historical details of the workings of the Underground Railroad. He is one of the many who helped slaves escape from Confederate America.

The three prominent Still brothers William, James, and Peter settled in Lawnside, New Jersey. All of his children became successful adults. William and Letitia Still’s oldest was Caroline Matilda Still a pioneer female medical doctor. Caroline attended Oberlin College and the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia (much later the Medical College of Pennsylvania); she had an extensive private medical practice in Philadelphia and was also a community activist, teacher and leader. William Wilberforce Still graduated from Lincoln University and subsequently practiced law in Philadelphia; Robert George Still, was a journalist who owned a print shop on Pine at 11th Street in central Philadelphia and Frances Ellen Still became a kindergarten teacher (she was named after poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who lived with the Stills before her marriage). On the 1900 U.S. Census William Still said he had two children and both were still living.

William Still died on July 14, 1902. To this day, their descendants have an annual family reunion every August. Notable members of the Still family include the composer William Grant Still.

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Person / name: 

Still, William