Abolitionist and writer William Still served an important role during the Underground Railroad movement. His 1872 book, The Underground Railroad, is reportedly the only first-person account of the tales involving the movement and the shuttling of the enslaved to the North so they could experience freedom.
Still was born free in Burlington County, New Jersey on October 7, 1821. His parents were former slaves who settled in the North and endured several hardships as a result. There was an account that Still helped to free his first slave when he was just a boy, but he came to prominence freeing slaves during his adulthood.
After settling in Philadelphia, Still became one of the city’s most successful businessmen and was attracted to the abolitionist movement. He was initially hired as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. The group formed a Vigilance Committee to help escapees who arrived in Philadelphia and Still was a vital component of the group.
In July 1855, Still and Passmore Williamson helped Jane Johnson and her two sons escape slavery in a nationally covered rescue. Still was also active in civil rights, lobbying heavily to have integrated streetcars in the city. When Black riders were mistreated, Still stood as a champion for their rights and wrote a short narrative about his activism around streetcar ridership.
Using his influence, Still helped to bring the first YMCA for Blacks to the city and helped fund an orphanage, among other notable acts.
Still’s story will be told in part in WGN America’s new drama, Underground, which makes its debut Wednesday night. Still will be played by actor Chris Chalk of Gotham and Lila and Eve fame. The show stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Alano Miller and Christopher Meloni in lead roles.
The first African-American to conduct a major American symphony, Williams Grant Still, is a descendant of the abolitionist.