Justice  /  Book Review

A Historian Forgotten

A new biography of William Still show how the abolitionist documented the underground railroad as he helped people through it.

William Still was born in 1821 to a free father and escaped mother in the Pinelands of southern New Jersey. His family’s original last name was Steel, which they changed to Still to evade the slave catchers who routinely patrolled the area. Indeed, one of the key facts of Still’s life, which Diemer does an excellent job of explaining, has to do with the political geography of the mid-Atlantic. Even after moving to Philadelphia, a free city and a hearth of abolitionism, Still remained surrounded by slavery. Maryland, a slave state, was a horse ride away. Delaware, another slave state, was even closer. Even New Jersey, a nominally free state just across the river from Philadelphia, reported a sizable population of enslaved people throughout the 1830s and ’40s.

Another key tenet of Still’s career as a conductor had to do with the advance of technology. What historians sometimes describe as the “market revolution”—the commercialization of American life in the early 19th century—connected Philadelphia to local economies up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Meanwhile, the “communication revolution,” marked by advancements in the postal service and the telegraph, kept Still in touch with a wider network of antislavery allies. Perhaps most importantly, the “transportation revolution” gave the world steamboats, railroads, and an expanded canal system that provided freedom seekers and conductors alike with a wider means of escape. Henry Brown—who later became known by the nickname “Box”—mailed himself via the newly minted Adams Express Company, a 19th-century equivalent to FedEx, while William and Ellen Craft, another famous pair of freedom seekers who came through Philadelphia, boarded several trains before taking a steamer north.

As Diemer shows us, Still’s work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad was always a function of his abolitionism. He was a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, worked as a clerk in the organization’s office, and was a protégé of sorts to James Miller McKim, the group’s secretary and the man who originally hired Still for the clerk position. Still was friends with most of Philadelphia’s leading abolitionists—a circle of activists that included Robert Purvis, Mary Grew, and James and Lucretia Mott. He kept up correspondence with many more from New York, Boston, and elsewhere, including Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, James W. C. Pennington, and Abraham Shadd and his daughter, Mary Ann, both of whom lived in Canada and promoted African American emigration north of the border. Mary Ann’s antislavery newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, routinely featured articles penned by Still.