William Still


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(1821–1902), abolitionist and historian.

Born of free black parents in New Jersey, William Still grew up on a farm, with little opportunity for formal schooling. He moved to Philadelphia in 1844, married in 1847, and in the same year went to work for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. In 1851 he became chairman of the society. Later in the decade he campaigned to end racial discrimination on Philadelphia railroad cars. Until the end of the Civil War, Still was involved in aiding fugitives from slavery, an activity that allowed him to meet and interview hundreds of runaways. The records he kept of these interviews along with numerous other documents, such as biographical sketches of prominent activists and letters from abolitionists and escaped slaves, became the source material for his book, The Underground Railroad. Commissioned by the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, this bulky volume was not published until 1872 because of Still's anxiety about reprisals that might await him because of his work on the Underground Railroad. The book was sold through subscription. Well received, it was reprinted in 1879 and 1883.

The Underground Railroad paid tribute to the generous efforts of white abolitionists on the “liberty line” but also stressed the courage and self-determination of the fugitives themselves in their quest for freedom. Still's motive in writing his book was to encourage other African Americans to write of the heroic deeds of the race during the crisis years of the mid-nineteenth century and, in general, to promote African American literature.

William Still, The Underground Railroad, 1872; rpt. 1968.

—Kenneth W. Goings

Subjects: United States History — Literature.

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