William Still at 200: Philadelphia will honor the abolitionist whose journal told Underground Railroad stories
Thursday marks the 200th anniversary of Still’s 1821 birthday. Area institutions will mark his historic role as a conductor of the Underground Railroad.
In immaculate handwriting, William Still carefully documented the names of people who fled enslavement and escaped to Philadelphia.
No one knows how many journals Still kept while he was chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Still was an abolitionist and successful business owner who is known as one of the conductors of the Underground Railroad in the Philadelphia region.
Only one journal, “Journal C,” a brown, weathered book kept in a vault at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania is known to exist.
At the top of nearly every page of the journal, dated between 1852 and 1857, Still wrote a single word: “Arrived.” On one page, dated June 19, 1855, Still wrote:
Still wrote down the age and descriptions of the people he met: Whether they had a dark or chestnut-colored complexion, whether they were tall or short. He described many as intelligent or smart.
On another date, Dec. 28, 1853, Still wrote: “Arrived Robt. Fisher, now Noah. Tall, dark, age 30. Left John Ed. Jackson of … Md. on Christmas Eve.” Still’s entry noted that Fisher said he was “entitled to his freedom at age 25, but had been illegally kept out of it and saw no prospect of obtaining it through any lawful process.”
On Thursday, the Historical Society and other Philadelphia institutions will mark the 200th anniversary of Still’s birth. He was born Oct. 7, 1821, to formerly enslaved parents in Burlington County.
“The fact that there is a Journal C implies there was a Journal A and B, but we just don’t know,” said David R. Brigham, CEO of the Historical Society.
» READ MORE: Valerie Still is celebrating the 200th anniversary of her abolitionist uncle’s birth. The University of Kentucky is honoring her, too.
Other abolitionists tried to persuade Still against keeping records because the freedom seekers could be captured and returned.
“He did a lot to hide those records from people. He hid them in the attic of a building in Olive Cemetery,” said V. Chapman-Smith, a public historian and retired regional administrator of the National Archives in Philadelphia.
“It was a controversial action, but he had the experience of having had people in his family enslaved and who wanted to be connected to their families.”
Still’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” , tells of his family being reunited with his older brother Peter, who had been left behind in slavery more than 40 years earlier, when his parents fled Maryland.
“He is more than the Underground Railroad,” Chapman-Smith said of Still. “He was a businessman, a philanthropist, a social activist throughout his life, and he really encouraged some of the women leaders after the Civil War.
“He introduced [the writer and poet] Frances Ellen Harper to Ida B. Wells and connected them to Black women social clubs. But these were not clubs for having tea. They were advocating for social change.”
Still anniversary events
Tuesday, Oct. 5, 6:30 p.m. : The Historical Society of Pennsylvania presents an online panel discussion: “From the Stacks — William Still, the Underground Railroad & Abolition in Pennsylvania.” Free. Register at portal.hsp.org/.
Thursday, Oct. 7, 10 a.m. : “Arrived … Celebrating William Still at 200.” Open House at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust St., Philadelphia 19107. See Underground Railroad, Journal C on display, along with letters to Still from Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Free. Register at: portal.hsp.org/.
Thursday, Oct. 7, 2 p.m. : The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University Libraries hosts a panel discussion: “The Life and Times of William Still.” Via Zoom at this link: temple.zoom.us/j/94348737793
Thursday and Friday, Oct 7-8: The University of Pennsylvania presents a two-day online conference: “Black Lives and Freedom Journeys: The Legacies of the Still Family of Philadelphia.” Registration is required: mceas.org/blacklives/Program.html
Thursday, Oct. 7, 11:30 a.m. : Members of the New Jersey state legislature will sign a resolution honoring Still and announce plans to introduce bill commemorating Oct. 7, each year, as William Still Day in NJ. Event location is 210 Medford Mt. Holly Rd., Medford, 08055.
Saturday, Oct. 9, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. : The Fairmount Park Conservancy hosts, “Walking in William Still’s Steps,” a guided hike and discussion. Hikers will walk to the “sleeping stones” of the old Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, a real above-ground railroad line. William Still collaborated with William Whipper and Stephen Smith, two Black owners of a lumber and coal business in Columbia, Pa. They created box cars with false ends and hid people seeking freedom in the cars among other cars with lumber they shipped to Philadelphia. Meet at the Ridgeland Mansion, 4100 Chamounix Dr. Philadelphia 19131. Tickets at https://fairmountpark.ticketleap.com/walking-in-william-stills-steps/