William Still was born in 1821 in Burlington County, New Jersey, to parents Levin and Sidney Still. Levin Still was a former slave that settled in the state of New Jersey after purchasing his freedom. Sidney was able to escape slavery and join Levin in New Jersey; Levin changed his last name from Steel to Still. William Still did not complete formal school but managed to learn grammar on his own. As a boy he helped his first person escape slavery, this would set in motion a great future. He moved to Philadelphia in 1844 where he found work as a handyman, in 1847 he began working as a janitor and a clerk in the Office of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Still soon moved his way up to becoming involved with helping blacks escape to freedom. Blacks running away from slavery sought refuge with Still, as they made their way to Canada; he even managed to harbor his long lost brother who was sold from his family forty years earlier. Still began documenting accounts of his interactions with former slaves seeking freedom. His accounts became a book that was important in detailing the history of the Underground Railroad; the book gave humanity to persons seeking freedom. Blacks enslaved were depicted as property, but Still gave the people life. His book The Underground Railroad was published in 1872, and is a rich source of the history of the Underground Railroad. Also in 1847, Still married Letitia George and they had four children.
After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Philadelphia abolitionist organized the Vigilance Committee to aide blacks escaping from slavery. Still was eventually named chairman of the committee. In 1855 Still visited communities of former Slaves in Canada, he was able to gather information proving the progress of freed blacks to help advocate for the emancipation of all slaves. Still was a participant in the rescuing of Jane Johnson, the committee helped Jane gain her freedom. In 1859 Still participated in the push for integration of the Philadelphia public transit system, their persistence paid off when the transit system was integrated in 1865 across the state of Pennsylvania. During the Civil War Still owned a stove store, he also operated a postal exchange at Camp William Penn. That camp was the training grounds for the black troops north of Philadelphia. After the Civil War he owned a coal delivery business. Still is regarded as the “Father of the Underground Railroad,” he helped over 800 people escape slavery. He also kept records of his interviews of each person he helped gain freedom. He used his detailed records to help unite displaced families as they gained freedom. Still was a part of an intricate group of persons known as “agents,” these people were stationed in different areas from Southern Philadelphia to New England. The agents were key components for communication in moving people from state to state. Still and Harriet Tubman encountered each other many time as they both worked to free as many people as possible. Being a man of great character Still established an orphanage for young black boys, and also opened the first YMCA for black boys in Philadelphia. In 1859 Still gave refuge to the wife of John Brown, as Brown and his companions failed to raid Harper’s Ferry. In 1861 Still finished his work with the antislavery office, but remained as the vice-president from 1896 to 1901. In 1902 Still died from kidney disease, but left a legacy worth ten life times. William Still dedicated his life to helping countless numbers of people gain their freedom from slavery. He risked his life and the life of his family for a noble cause, and is an example of a true humanitarian. Mr. William Still we proudly stand on your shoulders.
Below is the video version of the William Still biography.