William Still, younger brother of Dr. James Still, was born on October 7, 1821 in Burlington County, NJ. He was the youngest of eighteen children, fourteen of whom were born after his parents and two siblings escaped slavery. Just like his brother James, William Still lacked formal education and, instead, successfully taught himself how to read and write.
Still grew up in New Jersey, but moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania before his 23rd birthday. In 1847, he married Letitia George, and the couple had four children. That same year, Still was hired by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, where he worked as a clerk. He became the society’s chairman shortly after, when they organized a vigilance committee to aid former slaves who escaped to the city.
Hard Works Pays Off
Through all of his hard work, Still eventually became one of Philadelphia’s leaders in the African American community. In 1959, he challenged the West Philadelphia Railway Company, who would not allow African Americans to ride their cars unless they stood on the platform. In 1961, he drew up a petition in favor of the right for black people to ride inside train cars along with the whites, and by 1962, he had gathered around 360 signatures from prominent individuals throughout the city. Finally, in 1967, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania established an Act prohibiting discrimination on the lines.
Still, who was referred to as the “Father of the Underground Railroad,” helped over sixty slaves escape their imprisonment every month (his efforts ultimately totaling over 1,000 individuals). He interviewed each escaped slave and kept detailed records; during one interview, Still discovered that he was interviewing his older brother who was left behind when their mother escaped slavery.
The Underground Railroad
Still worked with Underground Railroad agents in the South as well as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, New England, and Canada. After the Civil War, Still published a book titled The Underground Railroad Records in 1872; in it, he revealed many of the secret notes he had kept during his years helping slaves escape.
In 1902, William Still died of heart trouble, leaving behind an incredible legacy. Throughout his 80 years, Still accomplished countless deeds for his country; his selfless nature and determination helped him combat racism and some of America’s worst behavior. All of his difficult labors and achievements make this New Jersey-native an American hero.
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