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William Stills: African American Abolitionist

William Still (October 7, 1821 – July 14, 1902) was a prominent African American abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad, writer, historian, and businessman. Known as the "Father of the Underground Railroad," he helped hundreds of enslaved people escape to freedom and meticulously documented their stories, which provides invaluable historical insights into the operations and impact of the Underground Railroad.

Early Life

  • Birth and Family: Still was born free in Shamong Township, New Jersey, the youngest of eighteen children. His parents, Charity and Levin Still, had escaped slavery from Maryland.

  • Education and Early Work: Despite limited formal education, Still was self-taught and highly intelligent. He moved to Philadelphia in 1844, where he worked various jobs before becoming involved in anti-slavery activities.

Underground Railroad

  • Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society: In 1847, Still began working as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. His position put him in direct contact with fugitive slaves.

  • Conductor: As a key figure in the Underground Railroad, Still provided shelter, resources, and guidance to escapees. He also corresponded with other abolitionists and conductors, creating a network of safe routes.

Documentation and Historiography

  • Record-Keeping: Still recognized the importance of documenting the stories of those he helped. He kept detailed records, including names, personal histories, and escape routes, which he later compiled into a book.

  • "The Underground Railroad Records": Published in 1872, this work remains a critical primary source on the history of the Underground Railroad. It includes firsthand accounts and biographies of many escapees, highlighting their courage and the network's operations.

Later Life and Legacy

  • Business Ventures: After the Civil War, Still became a successful businessman, investing in real estate and other ventures.

  • Community Involvement: He continued to be active in civil rights, supporting education and welfare initiatives for African Americans.

  • Family: Still's siblings also played significant roles in the abolitionist movement. Notably, his brother Peter Still, who had been enslaved, was one of the many he helped to freedom.

  • Death: William Still died on July 14, 1902, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is remembered as a crucial figure in the fight against slavery and for his invaluable contributions to American history.

Honors and Memorials

  • Historical Recognition: Still's contributions are honored in numerous historical accounts, and he is considered one of the most important chroniclers of the Underground Railroad.

  • Memorials and Tributes: Various institutions, including schools and historical sites, bear his name and commemorate his legacy.

William Still's meticulous documentation and courageous efforts were instrumental in the success of the Underground Railroad, and his work continues to educate and inspire future generations.

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