History

Father of the Underground Railroad Comes Into Focus With New Biography

July 23, 2021 | by Amy Cohen

William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia by historian William Kashatus opens with the most astonishing story of Still’s long and remarkable life. In August 1850, Still was a free Black man working as a janitor and mail clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS). Peter Freedman, who had recently purchased his freedom from enslavement, came to the Philadelphia office of the PASS and recounted to Still his harrowing life story. He was searching for his mother from whom he had been separated four decades earlier. As Still listened to his story, he had a realization: Peter Freedman was his brother. The next day, Freedman reunited with his 80-year-old mother.

In the introduction Kashatus claims that the book, published in April 2021 by The University of Notre Dame Press, is intended to be a scholarly biography of Still and an examination of the Underground Railroad geared to the general reader. By beginning with the singular tale of Still’s family reunification, however, the author illustrates what makes this book an odd read. For people familiar with William Still, they already know about Peter Freedman’s quest. For those who know little or nothing about Still, the most pivotal moment in Still’s life is over by page two. No other story will be as fascinating in the 220 pages that follow.

Portraits of Peter and Charity Still from 1872. | Images courtesy of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries

William Still (1821-1902), known as “the Father of the Underground Railroad,” assisted nearly 1,000 freedom seekers as they fled enslavement along the eastern branch of the Underground Railroad. Inspired by his own family’s story, he kept detailed, written records about the people who passed through the PASS offices. After the Civil War, Still became a successful businessman, a supporter of Black institutions, and a civil rights activist. In 1872 he published The Underground Railroad, by far the most important source on the workings of the network and the people it served.

In the opening chapters Kashatus recaps the history of the abolition movement. For the history scholar, this will be familiar information. For the novice, it is likely to be both dry and tedious.

However, when the author turns to explaining the Underground Railroad, the material is more compelling. Although Kashatus includes much information about the Quakers and other sympathetic whites who helped those fleeing enslavement, he points out that free Blacks, like Still, were the “backbone” of the operation. Earlier historians of the Underground Railroad tended to portray escapees as pitiable souls who were saved by the heroic efforts of brave, white abolitionists. Beginning in the 1960s, historical narratives shifted to put more emphasis on the agency of the people fleeing enslavement and the key role played by free Blacks.

William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia by William Kashatus chronicles the African-American abolitionist’s role in creating safe passage from bondage for African Americans during pre-Civil War slavery.

Kashatus’s biggest contribution to the historiography of the Underground Railroad is the analysis he provides of the information collected by William Still. Using both Still’s Underground Railroad and his unpublished Journal C of Station No. 2 of the Underground Railroad, Kashatus has compiled significant trends that characterize the freedom seekers. Some of his findings are not surprising. For example, 81 percent of escapees were male. Other information is less in keeping with standard depictions of the Underground Railroad. Watercraft, for instance, was the most frequent means of escape.

Given the book’s title, I was surprised to find that the chapters dealing with topics other than the Underground Railroad were the most interesting to me. I had not been aware that Still met with John Brown in 1858 as Brown sought funding for the ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. Although Still did not contribute money, he helped two survivors of the raid as they sought a path to Canada. Brown’s wife Mary was staying with the Still family when her husband was executed for his deeds. Later, when Still learned that Brown’s papers had been seized by the federal government, he decided to hide his records of the Underground Railroad at Lebanon Cemetery in South Philadelphia.

Once the Civil War erupted, Still left the PASS to launch what eventually became a lucrative coal and stove business. It is in the chapters about this period that we finally glean insight into Still’s personality. And the portrait isn’t pretty.

Still was known to be self-righteous, prudish, elitist, and even vindictive. Like Frederick Douglass and other community leaders, Still encouraged young men to enlist in the United States Colored Troops (USCT). He served as sutler at Camp William Penn, which entailed selling provisions to the Black soldiers training at the first-of-its-kind facility located just outside of Philadelphia in Cheltenham. Still frequently argued with the soldiers. He often accused them of passing counterfeit currency. The soldiers, in turn, thought Still shortchanged and looked down upon them.

In 1862 William Still, Isaiah Wears, and other civil rights activists circulated a petition arguing against the segregation of streetcars. 360 influential white Philadelphians signed the appeal. | Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Like other Black Philadelphians, Still was angered by the policies of the privately-owned streetcar companies that forbade Blacks to ride inside the vehicles and only permitted them to stand on the narrow ledge between the car and the horses that powered the conveyances. In 1859, he launched a campaign to end this practice by writing letters to newspapers, collecting the signatures of prominent white Philadelphians on petitions, seeking to persuade the owners of the streetcar lines to change their policies, all to no avail.

Exclusion from streetcars became particularly galling when men in uniform, as well as women seeking to visit their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers either at Camp William Penn or while convalescing in wartime hospitals, were denied entry. Both Frederick Douglass and Civil War hero Robert Smalls were ejected from Philly streetcars during the war years. Although Still continued to write letters, issue petitions, and meet with streetcar owners, little changed.

That is until Octavius Catto got involved. It was at Camp William Penn that Still met the young teacher, USCT recruiter, and civil rights activist. Catto, a decade younger than Still and less interested in collaborating with whites, initiated a more aggressive campaign to desegregate the streetcars. Catto, his fiancé Caroline Le Count, and his extensive group of friends, former students, and current students undertook a two-pronged effort. He wrote legislation and worked with sympathetic lawmakers in Harrisburg. Along with other young activists, Catto engaged in direct action and non-violent passive resistance. They boarded streetcars en masse and then went limp when police came to arrest them. These tactics foreshadowed those adopted during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Sculptor Branly Cadet and Mayor Jim Kenney unveiled the new Octavius V. Catto statue at City Hall during a ceremony in September 2017. | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Catto’s tactics bore fruit when a state law requiring streetcar integration was passed in 1867. Still was not happy. He even published a pamphlet entitled A Brief Narrative of the Struggle for the Rights of the Colored People of Philadelphia in the Railway Cars; and a Defense of William Still Relating to His Agency Touching the Passage of the Late Bill to underscore his role in the streetcar fight. As Kashatus notes, Still’s priority had been to open the streetcars to “respectable” Black people whereas Catto fought for universal access.

When the memorial to Octavius Catto was erected at City Hall in September 2017, I sensed that Still was rolling in his grave at Eden Cemetery. Behind the Catto statue there are five pillars meant to evoke the shape of streetcars. In other words, a major and permanent nod to Catto as the man responsible for streetcar integration.

As an aside, Leslie Odom Jr. allowed me to stop feeling badly for William Still. When the East Oak Lane-bred Hamilton star was cast to play Still in the 2019 Focus Features film Harriet, I figured the Father of the Underground Railroad could rest easy—Catto might have a statue, but Still was a movie star.


Local scholars comment on Still’s courageous leadership of the Underground Railroad. | Video courtesy of Making History Productions


The conflicts between Still and Catto did not stop there. Still also clashed with Catto and his crew about their enthusiastic participation in the relatively new sport of baseball. In an 1869 letter to the Pythian Baseball Club, Still refused to financially support the all Black team, writing “Our kin in the South famishing for knowledge, have claims so great and pressing that I feel bound to give of my means in this direction to the extent of my abilities, in preference to giving for frivolous amusements.”

When Still broke with the Republican party to support a People’s Party mayoral candidate in 1874, he became a pariah among much of the Black community. Interestingly, he accused the Party of Lincoln of taking Black votes for granted, something for which the Democratic Party is often criticized today.

As often happens, the civil rights leaders of one era are seen as accommodationists by their younger, more assertive counterparts. William Still was Booker T. Washington to Octavius Catto’s W.E.B. Du Bois, Sadie Alexander to his Cecil B. Moore, Martin Luther King Jr. to his Malcolm X, and John Lewis to his Stokely Carmichael. In retrospect, we can often see that there is value in both approaches.

William & Letitia Still’s former rowhouse at 625 South Delhi Street (right) in Bella Vista was rediscovered by preservationist James Duffin. The Underground Railroad landmark, built in the 1850s, was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2018. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Perhaps Still is not the guy you want to grab a beer with. However, the importance of his magnum opus, The Underground Railroad, cannot be overstated. As Kashatus emphasizes, it is much more than a compilation of his notes that had been secretly stored at much personal risk. The book provides details about escapees that enabled families to find their kin who had been spread far and wide by slavery. It is an elegantly written account of the experiences of slavery and the escape from slavery as told from the perspective of the passengers on the Underground Railroad. At the time of its publication, it was the longest work ever by an African American. To this day, Still’s book is considered the single best source for historians of the Underground Railroad.

William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia contributes valuable data analysis about the freedom seekers assisted by Still and others in the Philadelphia area. Nevertheless, it is not a biography of Still. We learn almost nothing about his personal life. His wife’s name is mentioned only twice, and his four children appear just once. Still’s life story disappears for pages and even chapters at a time.

Rather, this book is an overview of several important decades of American history with a heavy emphasis on abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. Other than a children’s book, a biography focusing on Still himself is yet to be written. As we approach the 200th anniversary of his birth in October of this year, I hope someone will be inspired to author such a work. And a statue would be nice as well.

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About the Author

Amy Cohen Amy Cohen spent 20 years as a social studies teacher, most recently at Masterman. She is currently the Director of Education at History Making Productions where she develops educational materials to accompany documentaries about the Philadelphia region. Amy was born and raised in Center City long before the era of sidewalk cafes and pop up beer gardens. She now lives in West Mount Airy with her husband—also a lifelong Philadelphian—and their two daughters.

8 Comments:

  1. Joyce Lieberman says:

    Thank you for the article,
    Amy.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thank you for reading it!

  2. Graham Robb says:

    Very helpful and interesting review.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks, Graham!

  3. Ava Hirsh says:

    Amy, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article about the book, William Still, by William C Kashutus. I appreciated your perspective about Still and various people who have helped pave the way for change and civil rights for the black community. You’ve been informative and forthright with the comparisons and connections you presented.

    I believe people connect much more easily and honestly by understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I like your willingness to appreciate the good, a lack of denial of the bad, and focusing ahead with a positive outlook.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks so much, Ava!

  4. Rob says:

    Please do not be as dismissive as to simply state, “Quakers and other sympathetic whites.” There were those “whites” who were far more than sympathetic to the ending of slavery and the plight of African-Americans during this period of the Underground Railroad. Some that you refer to as “sympathetic,” which refers to a passive attitude, were risking their own lives, fortunes, and reputations for the cause. I am certain you have read about such people as Thomas Garrett — who I believe deserves more that being simply called “sympathetic.” Be careful of your words and try not to be dismissive in your writing.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      I appreciate the feedback, Rob.

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