William Still

William Still
William Still abolitionist.jpg
Image of Still, published in 1898
Born(1821-10-07)October 7, 1821
DiedJuly 14, 1902(1902-07-14) (aged 80)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Resting placeEden Cemetery (Collingdale, Pennsylvania)
OccupationAbolitionist, businessman, philanthropist
Known forPennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, The Underground Railroad Records
Letitia George (m. 1847)

William Still (October 7, 1821[1][2] — July 14, 1902) was an African-American abolitionist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, businessman, writer, historian and civil rights activist. Before the American Civil War, Still was chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. He directly aided fugitive slaves and also kept records of the people served in order to help families reunite.

After the war, Still continued as a prominent businessman, a coal merchant, and philanthropist. He used his meticulous records to write an account of the underground system and the experiences of many refugee slaves, entitled The Underground Railroad Records (1872).


William Still was born in Shamong Township, Burlington County, New Jersey to Sidney (later renamed Charity) and Levin Still, both former slaves.[3] He was the youngest of eighteen children.[4] His parents had migrated separately to New Jersey. First, his father bought his freedom in 1798 from his master in Caroline County, Maryland on the Eastern Shore and moved north to New Jersey.

His mother, Charity, escaped twice from Maryland. The first time, she and four children were all recaptured and returned to slavery. A few months later, Charity escaped again, taking only her two younger daughters with her, and reached her husband in New Jersey. Following her escape, Charity and Levin had 14 more children, of whom William was the youngest. Though these children were born in the free state of New Jersey, under Maryland and federal slave law, they were still legally slaves, as their mother was an escaped slave. According to New Jersey law, however, they were free.[5]

Neither Charity nor Levin could free their two older boys, who remained enslaved in Maryland. Levin, Jr. and Peter Still were sold from Maryland to slave owners in Lexington, Kentucky. Later they were resold to planters in Alabama in the Deep South. Levin, Jr. died from a whipping while enslaved. Peter, his wife "Vina", and most of his family escaped from slavery when he was about age 50, with the help of two brothers named Friedman, who operated mercantile establishments in Florence, Alabama, and Cincinnati, Ohio. They were the subject of a book published in 1856.[6][7]

Later Peter Still sought help at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, seeking to find his parents or other members of his birth family. He met William Still there, but initially had no idea they were related. As William listened to Peter's story, he recognized the history his mother had told him many times. After learning that his older brother Levin was whipped to death for visiting his wife without permission, William shouted, "What if I told you I was your brother!" Later Peter and his mother were reunited after having been separated for 42 years.

Another of William's brothers was James Still. Born in New Jersey in 1812, James wanted to become a doctor but said he "was not the right color to enter where such knowledge was dispensed." James studied herbs and plants and apprenticed himself to a white doctor to learn medicine. He became known as the "Black Doctor of the Pines", as he lived and practiced in the Pine Barrens. James's son, James Thomas Still, completed his dream, graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1871.[5]

William's other siblings included Levin, Jr.; Peter; James; Samuel; Mary, a teacher and missionary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Mahala (who married Gabriel Thompson); and Kitturah, who moved to Pennsylvania.

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