An Excerpt from “William Still,” by William C. Kashatus

William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia (April 2020) is the first major biography of the free black abolitionist William Still, who coordinated the Eastern Line of the Underground Railroad and was a pillar of the Railroad as a whole. This monumental work details Still’s life story beginning with his parents’ escape from bondage in the early nineteenth century and continuing through his youth and adulthood as one of the nation’s most important Underground Railroad agents and, later, as an early civil rights pioneer. Unique to this book is an accessible and detailed database of the 995 fugitives Still helped escape from the South to the North and Canada between 1853 and 1861. 

From the Introduction

On August 6, 1850, Peter Freedman, an ex-slave who had recently purchased his freedom, arrived at the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS) in Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love was a nerve center of abolitionist activity due to its large Quaker and free black populations. There he met William Still, a free black abolitionist and director of Philadelphia’s General Vigilance Committee (PVC). Freedman, worn down by years of hard labor, looked much older than his fifty years. For more than an hour, the former slave recounted his life’s story explaining that he was searching for his mother from whom he had been separated some forty years earlier. Still sat and listened, transfixed by the tragic tale.

According to Freedman, he and his younger brother Levin were “kidnapped” from their mother, who he referred to as “Sidney.” “Carried south,” Levin died a slave in Alabama, but Peter earned the $500 necessary to purchase his own “ransom” from his owner, a Jewish merchant named Joseph Friedman. With no knowledge of the last names of his mother and father, or where he was born, Peter set out to find his mother. His search took him to Philadelphia where he planned to have notices read in the African American churches of the city in the hope that some of the older members might recall his mother’s circumstances.

As Still listened to the stranger’s story, he was struck by the similarities to his own mother’s past. Charity Still was born, raised and wed in slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She and her husband, Levin, were the young parents of four small children, two boys and two girls. Levin purchased his own freedom, resettled in Burlington County, New Jersey, and became a farmer, hoping to save enough money to secure the manumission of his wife and their children who remained in bondage. Charity and her two daughters rejoined Levin after a successful escape, but were forced to leave behind her two sons, eight-year-old Levin and six-year-old Peter. But the similarities ended there.

Could “Sidney” actually be Charity Still?

Though William was the youngest of the fourteen children Charity had borne in freedom, he was the one most curious about his mother’s bondage. That curiosity and, according to family lore, the knowledge that he had two older brothers, who remained in slavery, inspired him to take a job as clerk of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1847. 

Indeed, Charity Still had reason to be secretive about her early life. After she escaped, she changed her name from “Sidney” in order to protect her safety and that of her rescued daughters. At the same time, she remained heart-broken over the two sons she had left behind. 

Listening to Peter’s tale, William couldn’t help but notice the facial resemblance between Freedman and his mother. “I could see in the face of my new-found brother the likeness of my mother,” he wrote of the moment he realized that Peter was the older brother he had never met. “My feelings were unutterable.”

The next day, the two brothers traveled to Burlington, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, where Peter was reunited with his eighty-year-old mother. Four years later, Peter, with William’s help, freed his wife and three children who he left behind in slavery. They settled on a ten-acre farm in Burlington, where Peter lived until he died in 1868. 

The reunion with his long-lost brother Peter reinforced Still’s commitment to assist fugitives who also longed to be reunited with their families. To that end, he and his wife, Letitia George, often hid runaways in their own home at 832 South Street. He also communicated with dozens of station masters and conductors. With their assistance, Still coordinated the movements of hundreds of fugitives along the Eastern Line of the Underground Railroad from Northern Virginia to Canada. Although his activities were in direct violation of the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Still assisted nearly 1,000 slaves to freedom between 1853 and 1861. In the process, he earned the endearing moniker, “Angel at Philadelphia.”

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