William Still
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William Still was working as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in August of 1850, when a former slave named Peter Freedman walked into the office. This wasn't unusual in itself; Still had seen hundreds of slaves on their way to freedom. But as the older fugitive told his story, Still realized that he was listening to his own brother.

He would later write about the experience in a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Freeman:

"The fact was confirmed to my satisfaction, that my own dear brother, whom I have never seen before, was before me. There was no evading the evidence; all the names rehearsed and the circumstances connected therewith, were familiar to me, having my parents speak of them very frequently…My feelings were unutterable, and I was obliged to exert all my mental powers in order to conceal them."

Phil Lapsansky is a curator at the Library Company of Philadelphia:

"Absolutely dramatic, outstanding kind of event… And that led Still to start taking notes and he started making a journal of people in The Underground Railroad."

Still was born in New Jersey, the child of former slaves, in 1821, and moved to Philadelphia 23 years later. Still became intimately familiar with the Underground Railroad. During the 1850's, he was the chief field organizer and record-keeper for the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, a group that helped about 100 slaves a year find their freedom.

Charles Blockson, a curator at Temple University, says the Underground Railroad operated like its physical namesake. And Still was like a station agent.

Charles Blockson:

"The passengers were who? The enslaved Africans escaping. The agents were who? One was William Still, he plotted and planned. The conductors were who? Example Harriet Tubman. She conducted three hundred slaves and led them. Then you have the stockholders. What are stockholders? People who put their money…people who provided money, funds for the Underground Railroad. So you see the connection."

The difference, says Blockson, is that the Underground Railroad was a blatant violation of federal law, including the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Charles Blockson:

"Underground meant that you are doing something illegal, underneath the law. The Underground Railroad was stealing of property, southerner owners considered enslaved Africans property. They thought they had a right to recapture their property. They paid for it like a dog, horse, or sheep. So those who participated had to do it under the law."
William Still continued to interview escaped slaves as they passed through Philadelphia. It wasn't always an easy thing to do. Many slaves were reluctant to talk about where they'd come from, for fear of being sent back. And not all Still's colleagues in the Underground Railroad wanted him to keep a detailed record of their law breaking.

The Library Company's Phil Lapsansky:

"His intention was to have this available so people could find each other eventually and this of course excited his comrades because it's written documentation of the lethal violation of the slave act. But nonetheless, he did it."

Still grew wealthy as a coal merchant during the Civil War. He published his interviews in a book, The Underground Railroad, in 1872, and continued to fight for civil rights until his death in 1902. He founded the first black YMCA and helped lead a campaign to integrate Philadelphia streetcars. But it was as an agent on the Underground Railroad that William Still made his name.
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