The usual image of the Underground Railroad is one of secrecy and invisibility. In Philadelphia, however, it operated in the open, so traces of one of its prime operators can be seen all over the city. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has placed several historic markers around Philadelphia that track some of the “Father of the Underground Railroad” William Still’s activities. However, there are even more unheralded sites that were part of his very active life, although the original buildings may no longer be around.
Still was born in 1821 in Shamong, New Jersey on a small family farm in the Pine Barrens. Largely self-educated, Still moved to Philadelphia at the age of 23. He settled on N. 5th Street, near Poplar Street, in Northern Liberties, where migrants and immigrants occupied cheap workers’ housing interspersed among industries like tanners and brewers.
Still spent his early years in the city seeking improvements in both the quantity and quality of his work and pay. His employment ranged from brick maker to household servant, eventually leading up to a position as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS). “He was always ambitious and entrepreneurial,” said Andrew Diemer, history professor at Towson University and author of the new book Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad. “That goes with his desire to establish himself as a middle class person. He’s a classic self-made, self-educated man.”
PASS’s office was at 107 North 5th Street, opposite today’s site of the National Constitution Center. While its work centered around aiding fugitives from slavery in their journey north, an older organization founded in 1775, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), focused on helping those who settled in Philadelphia find work, housing, and other resources. A historical marker on Front Street between Walnut and Chestnut Streets is on the former site of its office. Still worked for both organizations at various times. PAS still exists today as a granting organization supporting projects confronting racism, preserving African American monuments, fighting housing discrimination, and improving the quality of race relations in Pennsylvania.
Geographically and politically, Philadelphia played an important role in the Underground Railroad. “Philadelphia was a great point to land and then move on,” explained Diemer. “Still’s network extended to Wilmington, Delaware and west to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He had connections to ship captains who would smuggle people aboard ships leaving ports in Virginia and North Carolina.”
“Still’s work could only have happened in the 1850s,” Diemer continued. “Earlier, there were some in Philadelphia with hostile attitudes towards abolition. By the 1850s, public sentiment had shifted towards a majority favoring abolition. Still’s enemy was the federal government, with the Fugitive Slave Law, not the public.”
Although the participants in the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia didn’t hide their activities, elsewhere in the country Still is a mostly little-known figure today. “There’s a reason we don’t know a lot about him,” said Diemer. “He’s not doing the daring stuff like Harriet Tubman and is not a great orator like Frederick Douglass. He’s a clerk, doing the mundane, but necessary work of the Underground Railroad.”
However, one historical marker notes an instance of a risky, very public event on Still’s part. At Penns Landing near the Independence Seaport Museum, a sign commemorates the liberation of Jane Johnson in 1855, aided by William Still, fellow abolitionist Passmore Williamson, and others. The subsequent trial was one of the first challenges to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required citizens and officials even in free states to help slave owners capture fugitive slaves.
William Still, Businessman
At various periods during and in between Still’s work with PASS, he maintained his own businesses. The first was a store that sold and repaired stoves, located in the former PASS office after the organization moved a few blocks away to North 10th Street. Still soon added a second enterprise, selling coal, which grew large enough to require a new site on Washington Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets.
Still’s reputation as an accomplished and trustworthy businessman led to an appointment at Camp William Penn during the Civil War. The training ground for Black soldiers operated for two years on 12 acres adjacent to the estate of Lucretia and James Mott. Still served as a sutler, a merchant who sold provisions to the recruits. A historical marker is on the site of the camp at 7322 Sycamore Avenue in the present-day community of La Mott in Cheltenham Township.
Still’s entrepreneurial efforts enabled him to acquire better homes for his family. From 1850 to 1855 they lived at 625 Ronaldson Street, now S. Delhi Street, where his wife Letitia operated a dressmaking business. The home was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2018.
Beginning in the 1860s, the family lived at 244 South 12th Street for several decades. It was here that Still wrote his monumental work, The Underground Rail Road Records, based on his meticulous accounts of the people he aided in their quests for freedom. A historical marker commemorates this site.
Still’s final home was at 726 South 19th Street, where he and his family moved in 1901. When Still died the following year, the memorial service was held at Central Presbyterian Church at 832-836 Lombard Street.
The Next Generation
Another Still family member with significant sites in Philadelphia is his oldest daughter Caroline Still Anderson. “Of all his children, she participated the most in his philanthropy,” noted Diemer.
She was educated first at the Institute for Colored Youth, located at 716-18 Lombard Street, where she graduated at the age of 15. The school’s historical marker is at its second location at 915 Bainbridge Street.
Caroline Still went on to attend Oberlin College, one of the first higher education institutions in the United States to admit Black students. Returning home to Philadelphia, she earned a medical degree from Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania once located at 229 Arch Street.
She married Matthew Anderson, pastor of the Berean Presbyterian Church at 1924 South College Avenue. Together they founded the Berean Institute, at nearby 1901 West Girard Avenue, to provide vocational training for Black students and eventually branched out with the Berean Building and Loan Association to aid Black homeownership.
A walking tour of these William Still sites in Philadelphia would yield an impression of ordinariness: rowhouses, offices, and businesses providing life’s necessities. This fits in with Still’s carefully cultivated image, said Andrew Diemer, “Like many freed Blacks aspiring to the middle class, he was conscious of respectability, of being judged,” as well as so much of the work of the Underground Railroad. “We have a romantic vision of hidden compartments and people on the run, but it was a lot of more ordinary work: getting clean clothes, getting people onto trains, and paying for all that.”
Author Andrew K. Diemer will give a presentation on his new book, Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad, at the Parkway Central branch of Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday, November 3 at 7:30 P.M. Admission is free.
See event details here: https://libwww.freelibrary.org/calendar/event/114984
Very interesting piece, and I look forward to reading Diemer’s new book. I hope he comes back to Philadelphia on a night that doesn’t have both an Eagles football game and a Phillies World Series game!