Memory  /  Book Review

“The Times Requires This Testimony”: William Still’s 'The Underground Railroad'

Still’s detailed record of radical abolitionist action remains a model for creating freedom out of community and community out of freedom.
William Still

Still’s book is a testament to his editorial and organizing skills. In some eight hundred pages, The Underground Railroad excites, perhaps to the point of overwhelming, readers with the stories of hundreds of “self-emancipated” men and women. Still archives their stories through personal interviews, letters from activists, illustrations, portraits, and correspondence from enslavers and fugitive ads. Still’s book includes the ingenious escapes of Henry “Box” Brown and Ellen and William Craft. There are also portraits and biographical sketches of other abolitionists, like Still’s friend and co-conspirator, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, that round out the text’s contribution to the abolition movement’s history. He also shares his connections to slavery and the underground railroad with the story of his long-lost brother, Peter Still, and his family, which opens the text.

While contemporary readers may have known the stories of people like Brown and the Crafts from the pages of abolitionist newspapers, Still also focuses on “arrivals,” those everyday individuals most of his readers would never have heard of without his book. He recorded information about their identities, homes, enslavers, and experiences in slavery and as runaways. Still also documented how arrivals learned about his office, their needs, and information on their family members. In doing so, he ushered their lives into the historical record. Each story was a lesson in history, self-determination, bravery, and collective action. As Still knew they would, these stories require readers to ask whether there could ever be a mundane escape from slavery.

Still’s archival practice is also of note in constructing a historical record. The Underground Railroad was a re-interpretation of antebellum abolitionists archiving under the confines of moral suasion.3 Still includes documentation of slavery’s terror that was common in abolitionist print culture and which often functioned not only to expose the violence of slavery but also to the enslaved to further violation through the violence of that very evidence. However, in Still’s hands, these inclusions function differently.