In “The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, And His Achievements,” an encyclopedia of distinguished black Americans, published in 1863, William Wells Brown included a sketch of William Still. Brown highlighted the pivotal role Still played as an officer of the Vigilance Committee of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, which coordinated the activities of the Underground Railroad.
“A self-made man who was born free to slave parents, Still was a model of black upliftment as well as political activism,” Brown wrote. Nine years later, Still published “The Underground Railroad,” an 800-page account of hundreds of runaway slaves he helped resettle in northern states and Canada.
According to Andrew Diemer, professor of history at Towson University and author of “Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad,” Still’s book is “the most important source” for understanding the inner workings of the Underground Railroad. .” When Still died in 1902, his admirers celebrated him as the “Father of the Underground Railroad.”
Yet for more than a century, Still “has been marginalized, sometimes even forgotten,” says Diemer. In “Vigilance,” Diemer goes a long way toward restoring Still to his rightful place as a significant figure in the antislavery and abolitionist movements.
Diemer documents the myriad ways Still shaped, promoted, and protected the Underground Railroad. He reminds us that the success of that invaluable, often invisible and not always well-organized enterprise depended on enlisting extensive grassroots networks of blacks and whites.
“Skill and Courage”
Like Still, Diemer highlights the determination, skill, and courage of runaway slaves and the willingness of black communities to shelter them as the most powerful engineers of the Underground Railroad.
To stay one step ahead of slave catchers, Still scrutinized advertisements in Southern newspapers that identified runaways. He was at the head of the opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act.
A substantial percentage of fugitive slaves helped by the Vigilance Committee remained in Still’s home. Still also helped some of them find lost lovers, children, siblings and parents.
He developed a relationship with John Minkins, a black steward on the steamer City of Richmond, and others like him, to ferry fugitives to Philadelphia and on to safe destinations. He still held meetings, with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, to raise money for abolitionist initiatives.
Still was also active in efforts to establish racial equality in Philadelphia, Diemer reveals. He challenged the segregation policy in the city’s trams, denouncing the exclusion of “respectable people on the basis of complexion”.
He fought segregation
Although appeals to influential white citizens to honor the service of black soldiers for the Union and negotiations with individual car companies were unsuccessful, the state legislature desegregated streetcars in 1867. However, he also led a lobbying committee for the black vote and enjoyed the passage of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution.
Diemer admits that Still could be proud, prickly and sanctimonious. Extremely confident in his own judgment and the importance of personal responsibility, “self-denial, practical economy and patient endurance” in racial uplift, he sometimes seemed to lack sympathy for the black masses.
In the last decades of his life, Still helped establish black branches of the YMCA to create a Christian environment for young people who might otherwise gravitate toward less healthy activities. Disillusioned with the Republican Party, Still voted for Prohibition Party candidates.
Those traits and tendencies shouldn’t diminish his legacy, Diemer says. While Still was not “a towering, heroic individual,” he was “a connector” who helped “ordinary black people,” the author writes.
As William Wells Brown discovered when he visited black refugee communities in Canada, Still was revered for his indispensable assistance in their flight to freedom. It’s a role worth celebrating in 2022.
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.