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The Forgotten Father of the Underground Railroad

The author of a book about William Still unearths new details about the leading Black abolitionist—and reflects on his lost legacy.

Still was not yet 30. He was born free in New Jersey in 1821, the youngest of 18 children, to parents who had been enslaved, and from an early age was drawn to the antislavery struggle. In time, he would rise to prominence as a leader of the abolitionist movement, and he would continue his work on behalf of Black rights in the decades following the Civil War. When he died in 1902, he was one of the most famous and respected Black men in America; newspapers across the country called him “the father of the Underground Railroad.” But there was perhaps no moment in his life more remarkable than this unlikely but pivotal encounter one August night with a man he had never met.

It was unlikely, but no coincidence, because Still had placed himself at the center of a vast network of people who were committed to aiding fugitives from slavery in their dangerous flight north. This network was built on word of mouth, on carefully compiled records, on letters and telegraph wires, on steamship lines, railroad tracks, and country roads, all converging on Still and the Anti-Slavery Society’s Philadelphia office.

Still’s job was to ensure that fugitives moved through Philadelphia as safely and efficiently as possible. This meant coordinating with allies outside of the city, sometimes in towns just miles outside of Philadelphia, other times in Southern port cities as far away as Norfolk, Virginia. It meant making sure that when fugitives arrived in the city, they were met at the docks or the train station and guided to a safe place to stay—often the Still family home. It meant providing medical care, food, a bath and a haircut to fugitives who had often been on the road for days or weeks, in addition to gathering information from informants across the city in order to anticipate the actions of the slave hunters who prowled the city.

All of this cost money, and Still was also responsible for raising that money and making sure the money was accounted for. Each expenditure was carefully recorded in his neat hand. Still’s work sometimes brought him face to face with the enemy—an arrogant slaveholder on the Delaware docks or a villainous slave catcher in a Philadelphia back alley—but most often his work found him, as he was that night when Freedman walked in, seated at his desk, writing.

“Good evening, sir,” Freedman’s guide said when they entered Still’s office. “Here is a man from the South that says he is hunting for his people, and he wants to make me believe he was born in Philadelphia.”

Still looked at Freedman. “What were your parents’ names?” he asked.