Although she grew up in poverty in Camden, Valerie Still, a former professional women’s basketball player, knew as a youngster that she was part of a proud, historic family.
She is the great-great-grandniece of William Still, the Philadelphia abolitionist known as the Father of the Underground Railroad. He guided Harriet Tubman, and at least 800 others, to freedom as they escaped slavery in the South.
Valerie Still, who lives in Palmyra, N.J., will take part in two Philadelphia events on Thursday, commemorating the 200th anniversary of William Still’s birth on Oct. 7, 1821. There will be programs on Tuesday and Thursday at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and on Thursday at the Charles Blockson Collection at Temple University.
She is also the great-great-granddaughter of Dr. James Still, known as the “Black Doctor of the Pines.”
William Still was a coal merchant and chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, which helped people on their way north toward freedom. Still kept records of the people when they escaped, and the new names they took in Philadelphia.
Those records were the basis of his book, The Underground Railroad, published in 1872.
William Still was born in South Jersey
While William Still is known for his anti-slavery work in Philadelphia, he was born free in Shamong Township, Burlington County, to parents who had been enslaved in Maryland.
His father, Levin Steel, bought his freedom in 1798 and later settled in New Jersey, where he changed his last name to Still.
Still’s mother, Sidney, escaped slavery twice. During her first escape, she fled separately from her husband to New Jersey with their four children, but they were all captured and returned to Maryland.
On her second escape, she fled with her two younger daughters, leaving her two older sons, Levin Jr. and Peter. Once reunited with her husband, Sidney changed her name to Charity. She and Levin had 14 more children, with William the youngest of 18. He moved to Philadelphia in 1844 at age 23 and later found work as a clerk at the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
A Still descendant making her own path
Valerie Still, at 60, is having quite a year of her own in 2021.
She will be inducted into the University of Kentucky Hall of Distinguished Alumni on Friday in Lexington, Ky. She played for the women’s basketball team from 1979 to 1983 and holds school career records — among both men and women — in scoring, with 2,763 points, and in rebounding, with 1,525 grabs. She is also being honored as an author, former television host, and for her philanthropy.
On Oct. 8, she will fly to Knoxville, Tenn., for the finals of the Ladies Ball, a national basketball tournament for girls in the fourth to 11th grades.
At 6-foot-1, Still played in Italy for 12 years, then returned to the United States to play with the Columbus Quest of the American Basketball League and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. She led the Quest to two back-to-back world championships and was voted MVP for both championship series.
She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019 and is an author of children’s books about the Underground Railroad and a memoir, Playing Black & Blue. She’s also running for Palmyra Borough Council as an independent write-in candidate on Nov. 2.
The Inquirer recently spoke to Still about her many projects in Palmyra.
You recently visited the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to record a reading from William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad , for its Oct. 7 program. What does it mean to be part of that legacy?
William’s mother, Charity, was never a slave. Being enslaved is a status, it’s not who you are. She was bold enough even though she left her young boys [Levin Jr. and Peter], knowing they were going to be sold — she instilled in them this knowledge of who they were. She couldn’t tell them where she was going, but she constantly told them, “Your father’s name is Levin. Your mother is Sidney, and you are from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.” This is how brilliant Charity was. I see her as leaving a legacy for generations to come. And I’m here right now, carrying on that legacy.
The brothers were sold to a man who ran a brickyard in Lexington, Ky., ironically where both my brother and I broke records — and where I am receiving an honor this weekend. [Her older brother, Art Still, played football at Kentucky and had a 12-year career in the NFL.] Levin was killed after being whipped. Years later, Peter was taken further south to Alabama. [At about age 50, Peter escaped enslavement, more than 40 years later, and made his way to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society office seeking help as a runaway. There, he met William. They did not realize they were brothers until Peter told him the names of his parents.]
In your memoir, you write that despite a storied family history — some of the children of William Still and Dr. James Still became doctors, lawyers, and teachers — your immediate family struggled in poverty. What were those circumstances like?
I think my father, who played piano with jazz greats at the Dew Drop Inn in Pennsauken, lived with the pressure of not living up to his family’s name. He had to work several jobs to feed a family with 10 children. I was the ninth. Sometimes, that last name can be a weight, and it can also inspire. But we don’t really know what happened to Dr. James Still’s property. He was one of the largest landowners in Burlington County, and after his death, his family lost a lot of his land.
You are running for the Palmyra Borough Council as a write-in candidate on Nov. 2. Why are you seeking office?
My house got flooded in a storm on July 12. This wasn’t a big storm like when Hurricane Ida came through. It wasn’t a 100-year-storm. It was 3.4 to 5 inches of rain. I got four feet of water in my basement, and my backyard was like a lake with four to five feet of water.
The reason it got flooded was that the borough had left the storm drain behind my house filled with leaves. It wasn’t cleaned. The borough claims they had cleaned it, but I don’t believe that.
This is a small town of less than 7,000 people, and it seems like we just can’t get clear answers. I started digging into it, and instead of just complaining, I thought, “Why don’t I put my hat in it?”
I’m a write-in candidate because I decided too late to get on the ballot. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I have a Facebook group page called the Palmyra Proud People’s Party.
[She is trying to unseat one of two Democratic Council members up for reelection unopposed: Palmyra Borough Council President Timothy Howard and Council member Michelle McCann.]
You always wear white, even your glasses and shades are white. What’s the story behind your signature white attire?
You hear about these successful tech people who wore the same colors every day because they didn’t want to waste time on the nonsense of deciding, “What am I going to wear today.” [Here, she nods to Steve Jobs, the Apple cofounder who wore black turtlenecks.] So, I always wear white pants, white shirts, and my white glasses. It just makes a clean, clear, positive, powerful look. I just wear white so I have one less thing to think about.
Your family left an incredible stamp on Black history in this country. You have a master’s degree in African and African American studies. Yet, you have an unusual opinion about how we talk about race and ethnicity in America. Why is that?
This is something I’ve come to an understanding about over the years since I’ve been studying meditation. I have a master’s in African American studies because I knew if I’m going to write about my family history, I need to really know that history. But this thing with race — the color of your skin — really doesn’t matter, and if we can get past that, the sooner, the better. It’s not about “not seeing color.” But that, our skin color is not who we are. We’ve got to be able to disassociate that. Our bodies, the color of our skin, that has no bearing on who we are on the inside. It goes back to the idea that we are pure, positive, powerful, and unlimited energy.