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William Still: Forgotten Father of the Underground Railroad

Peter Freedman saw danger in the unfamiliar faces around him. It was August 1850, and he had come to Philadelphia looking for parents he had not seen in decades—not since he was separated from them as a child and sold south. The journey from Alabama had been long and arduous, but now that he was here, he was unsure if he should have come. Would he even recognize his parents if he saw them? It had been more than 40 years, after all.

He had good reason to be wary. Though he was now legally free, having purchased his own freedom after decades of bondage, he’d heard stories of kidnappers who were on the lookout for unsuspecting Black men like him. Some of these kidnappers even posed as abolitionists.

Upon arriving in the city, Freedman went to the boardinghouse of James Bias, a Black doctor he was told he could trust. Bias was out of town. Instead, his wife, “a bright mulatto woman, with a kind smile and a pleasant voice,” as Freedman later recalled, welcomed the visitor and arranged for a guide to help him look for his parents.

The two men walked around the city, inquiring among Black men and women they met if any had known a man named Levin and his wife, Sidney, who had lost two children 40 years prior. Freedman and the guide spent two days conducting their search with no success.

At this point, Eliza Bias suggested Freedman go to the local Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society office, to speak to a man named William Still who worked there and might be able to help him.

It was about 6 in the evening when Freedman set out with his guide. He had the sense that the guide did not believe his story, and this only accentuated his anxiety. When they finally reached the office, Freedman peered through the window and saw a young Black man, neatly dressed, writing at a desk.

When they entered, the young man, tall and dark-skinned with short-cropped hair and strong features, rose to greet them.

Still was not yet 30. He was born free in New Jersey in 1821, the youngest of 18 children, to parents who had been enslaved, and from an early age was drawn to the antislavery struggle. In time, he would rise to prominence as a leader of the abolitionist movement, and he would continue his work on behalf of Black rights in the decades following the Civil War. When he died in 1902, he was one of the most famous and respected Black men in America; newspapers across the country called him “the father of the Underground Railroad.” But there was perhaps no moment in his life more remarkable than this unlikely but pivotal encounter one August night with a man he had never met.

It was unlikely, but no coincidence, because Still had placed himself at the center of a vast network of people who were committed to aiding fugitives from slavery in their dangerous flight north. This network was built on word of mouth, on carefully compiled records, on letters and telegraph wires, on steamship lines, railroad tracks, and country roads, all converging on Still and the Anti-Slavery Society’s Philadelphia office.

Excerpted from Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad by Andrew K. Diemer. Published by Alfred A. KnopfCopyright © 2022 by Andrew K. Diemer. All rights reserved.

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