Black History Series- A Lesson about “The Father of the Underground Railroad” William Still

SOURCE/HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF PENNSYLVANIA

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

While the grand little army of abolitionists was waging its untiring warfare for freedom, prior to the rebellion, no agency encouraged them like the heroism of fugitives. The pulse of the four millions of slaves and their desire for freedom, were better felt through “The Underground Railroad,” than through any other channel.

-William Still, 1878

In commemoration of Black history month we would like to discuss a little known historical figure. When most people think of the Underground Railroad they often think of Harriet Tubman (And rightly so), but there were also many, many others who if it were not for them the Underground Railroad would not have been as successful as it was. Some of these men and women were Isaac Hopper (An engraver), John Brown (A militant abolitionist), Thomas Garrett, Levi Coffin, John Rankin, John Parker, Bishop Richard Allen (Founder of AME Church) and William Still.

William Still (1821-1902) also known as the Father of the Underground Railroad, was one of the most famous conductors of the Underground Railroad. He was an abolitionist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a man of many accomplishments. He was a writer, historian, civil rights activist and businessman. William Still married Letitia George and they had four children who survived infancy. His children went on to occupy prominent roles in society becoming doctors, lawyers, journalists and teachers. Prior to the Civil War in 1847, William Still worked as a clerk and a custodian at the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and later became the chairman. After the war, Still continued successful business ventures, purchased property, opened his own store selling stoves and later operated as a coal merchant and philanthropist.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of William Still is that he assisted and housed many fugitive slaves. One of the fugitives was his brother Peter, who had been left behind when Still’s mother had escaped over 40 years earlier. He helped his first runaway slave when he was just a boy, going on to help hundreds more throughout his life. But most amazingly, he maintained records of the people he aided and served so that he could help families unite. He kept meticulous records of those he assisted. However he destroyed many of the records to avoid those he helped, so that the records would not be used to prosecute them. However, he was still able to use his memory and records to write the first comprehensive account of the Underground Railroad and the experiences of many refugee slaves. He entitled the book “The Underground Railroad Records” (1872). William Still’s volume remains one of the most important texts to date as it relates to the study of black history and the Underground Railroad.

Lesson Plans/Resources
William Still- Classroom Resources
A man of God- Lesson Plan
Biography of William Still, Father of the Underground Five Free Underground Railroad Resources
Underground Railroad Digital Classroom Lesson Plan

References
William Still- Underground Railroad Freedom Center
The Underground Railroad Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters By William Still
Willian Still
The Underground Railroad: The William Still Story
Biography of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad


11 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article, I had never heard of William Still before and I can now see how unfortunate that was to never have learned about this man and his contributions to The Underground Railroad and to history. The article made a great point, that when we think of The Underground Railroad we tend to just think about Harriet Tubman. While she did make significant contributions and deserves to be recognized for that, so does William Still and all the others that played roles in The Underground Railroad. William Still helped so many fugitive slaves reach freedom, he reunited families, and he kept them all safe as well. He deserves to be recognized and that is why I truly enjoyed reading this article and I am very happy that it was written. I think that this article and the resources provided can help students learn more about The Underground Railroad and all of the people who played a role in helping these slaves reach freedom. This article allows students to see a different piece of history that they may not have known about, especially when it comes to the fact that it wasn’t just adults helping these slaves, it was children to, William Still was just a young boy when he helped his first runaway slave. I also think that this would be a great unit to introduce right before black history month begins because then the students can really understand what the month is about and why the decision was made to dedicate a whole month to it.

    • I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article because I have not heard of William Still, but from what I learned, he made a huge contribution to the Underground Railroad by saving many people. I found him to be a very thoughtful person since he tried to keep a record of who all he helped so that way he could reunite these individuals with their families. I also would really like to read his book sometime to learn more about what he did as well as how life was like for him while helping hundreds of people. I believe that we need to address more people like William Still when teaching about Black History Month. I have never heard about him and he was such a significant figure during the Underground Railroad. This just goes to show that there were so many brave men and women who helped with the Underground Railroad that have rarely been talked about in classrooms. We need to highlight these individuals as well because they are a huge part of our history in America.

  2. I found this article to be very interesting because of the topic and the person it was written about. As mentioned in the article, the first person I think of when thinking of the Underground Railroad is Harriet Tubman. I never really though about how there must’ve been many other people involved in keeping the Underground Railroad going and helping slaves to escape through it. I really like how he kept records of the slaves that passed through his house. It gives them an identity that they haven’t had for such a long time. By writing down their names in a book, I feel like this was them showing their new free self and their new identity as something to be proud of.

  3. The Underground Railroad has always been a topic I enjoyed learning about throughout my studies in school and you’re right, so many people were a part of this in history and only some are talked about more often. It is interesting to see more about the people who helped build the Underground Railroad and the other things they accomplished. For instance, William Still not only conducted the Underground Railroad, but he aided slaves so that they could be safe and hopefully find their family members. People did all they could to free slaves because they knew it was something they had to do. They felt that this was the right thing even though it was dangerous to everyone involved. It is so powerful to see what people with the Underground Railroad were willing to do for family and even strangers.

  4. Up until reading this article, I had never heard of William Still. While I am a little embarrassed to admit that, I am certain that is not an uncommon statement. Talking about Harriet Tubman isn’t a bad thing, but solely focusing on her when there are so many others who were pivotal in the success of the Underground Railroad is doing this historical event and these individuals a disservice. I learned that William Still assisted and housed many fugitive slaves, including his brother, who had been left behind when their mother escaped over 40 years earlier. I was most intrigued to hear about how he maintained records of people he helped, in an effort to support families in uniting. In terms of applying this important information into my own classroom, if I were to teach 4th or 5th grade post-undergrad, I would love to read some of William Still’s book to my students. I believe there is so much value in teaching young children through the use of non-fiction, newspaper articles, autobiographies, biographies, etc.

  5. I also have not ever heard of William Still and just from reading this article, I can tell that he did so much when it came to the Underground Railroad. It sounds like he was a man of many trades from the jobs listed above of everything he did during his lifetime. Ever since 8th grade when we got to go to Camp Joy and learn about the Underground Railroad more in depth through first hand experiences, I have always been very interested in the stories about the people who went through that journey. I love that William Still kept records of the people he was helping with hopes of reuniting families, I think that tells a lot about the type of person he was and supports the fact that he was a big family man. I would like to read his book because I bet there are tons of intriguing stories from his experience and I think it would be a great primary resource to use in my future classroom with upper elementary grade level students.

  6. After reading this article, I have several notes. I find it odd that I have no recollection of William Still, and why Harriet Tubman is an activist I consistently think of and that is always portrayed as the face of The Underground Railroad. There were a few comments I thought were incredibly intriguing; one being that he had, “four children who survived infancy”. This implies that he had other children who passed. How did they pass? Was it due to lack of resources or medical incompetence? The other comment that stuck out was that his mother escaped many years ago leaving behind her son, Still’s brother. I find this an interesting controversial topic, the first thing I think when a parent leaves their child is ‘what a horrible person’, but there are so many other factors to look at; was this her one chance for escape, was a better for the child, would they have been separated anyway. To think, if I have this many questions from this article, what kind of questions would students have. Finally, expanding the student’s knowledge further than Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King (Jr.), as well as helping students grasp that this was not a short process. Slavery going into Civil Rights took an army of abolitionists, activists, and supporters to get where we are today.

  7. I think it is so interesting to read things I did not learn in school. When we think of the Underground Railroad we think of Harriet Tubman. However, Dr. Childs tells us about a man named William Still who had one of the biggest impacts on the underground railroad and civil rights. I think it is an important reminder for ourselves to never stop learning and educating ourselves.There are so many things are history books leave out. As a future teacher I hope to equip my students to always keep learning about these important matters.

  8. This was a great article to read. I had never heard of William Still and his contributions to the Underground Railroad. I remember Harriet Tubman and her works with the Railroad but never any others, which is a shame as I can only imagine all the people involved in helping so many people escape to their freedom. His story is so important to the study of black history and needs to be more well known in our society. It is up to educators to help teach this important part of American history.

  9. This was by far one of the best articles. I have always enjoyed finding out new information about our history. Before this article i never realized how William Still played an important role in the Underground Railroad. I have heard of his name before in one of my history classes, but that was a while ago. Whenever someone mentions the underground railroad most people instantly assume Harriet Tubman. Remembering the others apart of the underground railroad is important because they have helped rescue slaves and saved lives as well, so it is important for us to honor them in history because us African Americans may not have been as free like we are today if it was not for people like William Still.

  10. While reading this article and the resources listed, I was truly struck by the courage of William Still. It reminded me of a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The time is always right to do what is right.” Our lives are made of choices. We all have the choice to do the right thing, but, sometimes, circumstances can make the right thing the difficult thing. Sometimes, we choose not to do what is right. I can not imagine what would have happened if William Still chose to not be a conductor of the Underground Railroad. How many fugitive slaves would have been caught by slave catchers and sent back to their owners? How many stories of refugee slaves would have never been written to be shared? Thankfully, we do not know the answers to these questions because William Still was courageous and chose to the right thing even though it was difficult. Even though, he put himself in danger of being prosecuted and maybe even being killed. Fundamentally, it is easy to say that we would do the right thing no matter what, however, Still actually did. We may all learn a thing a two from the courageous Mr. William Still.

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