This year marks the 200th anniversary of William Still’s birth. Still, a free Black Philadelphian who assisted nearly 1,000 fugitive slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, later became a civil rights pioneer who fought for Black suffrage and the integration of the city’s streetcars. But few Philadelphians know of him or his singular contributions.
Instead, Still was overshadowed by Octavius Catto, a younger and more prominent Black civil rights leader in post-Civil War Philadelphia. While the two reformers fought for the same causes, history was kinder to Catto because he was a more dynamic figure who confronted directly the widespread discrimination in the city and became a martyr for Black voting rights. In fact, Still’s efforts paved the way for Catto’s success.
It’s time the City of Philadelphia recognize that fact by erecting a statue of Still next to the one of Catto at the southwest corner of City Hall.
Born on Oct. 7, 1821, in Burlington County, William Still was the son of formerly enslaved people who were fugitives. Relocating to Philadelphia in the 1840s, Still was hired by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to coordinate the movement of hundreds of enslaved people escaping bondage in the South to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad.
Between 1853 and 1861, Still risked his life by assisting 995 enslaved people who had run away to freedom in violation of the federal Fugitive Slave Law. He personally interviewed and cataloged the backgrounds of all the fugitives and compiled the information in a 780-page manuscript titled The Underground Railroad. Hoping to reunite the freedom seekers with their families after the Civil War, Still published the manuscript in 1872. It is not only the earliest account of the secret route to freedom authored by an African American but widely considered to be the most authentic source on the Underground Railroad itself.
Nor did Still’s efforts end with the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States.
During and immediately after the Civil War, Still persuaded city officials and state legislators to desegregate Philadelphia’s streetcars and restore the Black franchise. He wrote several newspaper editorials, spoke at public gatherings, and circulated a petition among the city’s white business leaders demanding the right of Black people to ride the streetcars. Unfortunately, white passengers voted to continue the racial restrictions.
But when Catto, in 1865, began to organize mass protests by having Black people sit in the streetcars and refuse to leave them, the Pennsylvania legislature finally yielded to the pressure and passed a bill that desegregated the city’s transportation system.
Similarly, since 1860 Still had been lobbying the state legislature to restore the franchise Black people lost in 1838 when a new state constitution was adopted. But his efforts proved futile as every post-Civil War referendum to extend the franchise to Black people was defeated.
When Catto joined the struggle in 1865, however, he pledged that the city’s Black people would vote Republican and worked tirelessly with state legislators to get Pennsylvania to ratify the 15th Amendment for the right to vote, which it did in October 1870. One year later, Catto was assassinated by a white gunman while rallying Black support for the Republican Party during the city’s mayoral election.
In both cases, Still used moral suasion to bring the injustice to the attention of state legislators, white businessmen, and the general public and kept the issue alive for nearly a decade before Catto employed direct action to achieve the desired goal. Yet for the next century, Catto was immortalized as a martyr to Black voting rights, Still faded into anonymity, and their different approaches to civil rights spawned a fundamental dialectic in African American history.
It is a mixed — and enduring — legacy that continues to define distinctly different strategies to achieve civil rights and embodies a constant but inevitable tension between “passive resistance” and “active defiance,” “docility” and “aggression,” “self-reliance” and “direct action.”
The tension existed in the different approaches embraced by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois in the early 20th century and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the mid-20th century. Yet as history has proven, both strategies were necessary to achieve civil rights for African Americans.
If we honor Octavius Catto, who died for the cause of Black suffrage, we must do the same for William Still, who jeopardized his life for his enslaved brethren who sought their freedom and later paved the way for Catto’s success. Until the City of Philadelphia does that, it will never do justice to the historical record or to the struggle for civil rights that occurred here.
William Kashatus is author of the recently published William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia (Notre Dame University Press). email@example.com