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An Interview with William C. Kashatus, author of “William Still”

William C. Kashatus

William C. Kashatus holds a doctorate in history education from the University of Pennsylvania. He curated Just Over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad, recognized by The Journal of American History as a “first rate exhibit and model of outreach to the local community” and winner of the American Association of Historical Societies and Museums Award of Merit. A prolific writer, Kashatus is the author or co-author of thirty books, including Harriet Tubman: A Biography and In Pursuit of Freedom: Teaching the Underground Railroad. He recently talked to us about William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia (April 2021), which is the first major biography of the abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad.

2021 is the bicentennial of the birth of abolitionist William Still, who was born on October 7, 1821. When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

In 2000, I was curating a multi-media exhibit on the Underground Railroad at the Chester County (PA) Historical Society. William Still was one of the figures we highlighted in the exhibit because so many of the freedom seekers he aided came through Chester County being sent there by Thomas Garrett, a Wilmington, Delaware Quaker and stationmaster. 

The Still-Garrett relationship was so fascinating to me because it embodied the spirit of the national Underground Railroad itself: free blacks and whites working together for the common cause of freedom. It really was the first civil disobedience movement in our country.

Today’s inequalities in education, housing, employment, and representation in leadership positions are rooted in our country’s shameful history of slavery and systemic racism. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during our current era? How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?

I believe the Still biography will be instructive for the Black Lives Matter movement because it addresses the important dialectic for civil rights that Still and his contemporaries created. One part of that dialectic emphasized non-violent protest by both blacks and whites in order to force Congress and the courts to act. After the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865, Still and the “old guard” of abolitionists were part of that group. They were accommodationists.

The other half of the dialectic emphasized direct (and sometimes militant) action by blacks themselves. Octavius Catto was the leader of this younger group of activists. Naturally, Still and Catto came into conflict with each other because they did not agree with the other’s approach to civil rights. 

Unwittingly, Still and Catto established a precedent for the dialectic which continued well into the twentieth century. “Accommodation” was later embraced by such figures as Booker T. Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while “direct action” was embraced by such individuals as W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X. Sadly, what neither side understood was that both approaches were and still are necessary in order to affect meaningful and lasting reform. 

How did you research this book? What was your writing schedule like?

The Still biography was unlike any other book I have written because it took twenty-years to complete. I began my research in 2000 for the UGRR exhibit I mentioned earlier and focused on Still’s 1872 book, The Underground Railroad Records, because it is the most authentic account of the secret route to freedom. Just as important, the book deals with a specific geographical region: most of the runaways came from northern Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware and passed through Philadelphia. Most other accounts of the UGRR deal with a much broader geographic territory and it is difficult to discern patterns of behavior among the runaways and the UGRR agents because of it.

I also had the benefit of working with the late James McGowan, an African American historian and author of a biography on Thomas Garrett. Jim had already completed two-thirds of a database of the runaways Still identified in his book and in Journal C, which is housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Jim categorized the runaways by such variables as: date of escape; city, county, and state of origin; mode of transportation; names of owners; and names of UGRR agents who assisted in the escape. 

But I was forced to abandon the research when I took a college teaching job in northeastern Pennsylvania in 2004. For the next four years, the only work I did on Still was to assist McGowan with his database. That work was largely limited to weekends and summers when I was back in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Before Jim died, in 2008, he asked me to do two things for him: (1) to complete the database and analyze it; and (2) to complete a biography on Harriet Tubman he had been working on. I chose to finish the Tubman book first, which took two years. Then I returned to the database, which took another four years. 

After I completed the multivariate analysis in 2014, I found certain patterns of behavior among the 995 freedom seekers Still assisted that did not agree with the historiography on the Underground Railroad. Specifically, I found discrepancies in mode of transportation, incidence of female and group escapes, and the amount of rewards offered for the runaways. I believed that these findings were significant enough that I could write and publish the analysis by itself. But no publisher was interested unless I was willing to do a full-scale biography on Still. As a result, I returned to my research on Still’s life combing through both primary and secondary source material on him and others with whom he worked. 

Among the collections I researched were: the Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, which has the personal papers of the Still family; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which has Journal C as well as Still’s other writings; the Quaker Collection at Haverford College and Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, which contain papers of abolitionists who associated with Still.

I spent three years completing the research and another three years writing and editing the book.

What did you learn while writing William Still? In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

When I began my research, I greatly admired William Still. Not only did I respect his motive for writing his book, The Underground Railroad Records (to reunite family separated during slavery), but I admired his courage for defying the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to assist so many runaways to freedom. But when I began to research his later life (1865-1900) when he became a civil rights pioneer, I saw him in a different light. I began to recognize that his refusal to work with a younger generation of reformers was based on ego and their refusal to defer to his judgement. I also came to believe that his involvements in the Philadelphia Street Car protest and the movement to regain the vote for blacks were undertaken more to keep his name in the spotlight than for the cause itself. In short, I found out that William Still was disappointingly human after all.  

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

That’s a loaded question because I’ve written on many different subjects. I’ve been inspired by the work and encouragement of many different historians. If we are talking African American history, the biggest influences on my writing have been James and Lois Horton and their work on the free black community in the antebellum North and James McGowan’s work on Thomas Garrett. I had the privilege of working with all three of these individuals because they were advisors on the UGRR exhibit we did at the Chester County Historical Society. I’ve also been strongly influenced by the work of John Hope Franklin, who has researched and written on a wide variety of subjects on the African American experience.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

First, write on a subject you know something about, something that resonates with your background and personal experience. Second, make sure you are passionate about the subject because you will be spending a considerable amount of time—years, in fact—researching and writing about that subject. Finally, learn to take criticism from a more experienced writer and apply what you learn. It’s the only way you will be able to improve your craft. 

What book are you working on next?

A biography of Levi Coffin, who was William Still’s counterpart on the Western Line of the Underground Railroad in Newport, IN and later Cincinnati, OH. Coffin was my introduction to the subject when I was a student at Earlham College in Richmond, IN in the late 1970s. I visited the house where he harbored runaways in nearby Newport (present-day Fountain City, IN), which serves as a museum. From that point on, the UGRR became a topic of endless fascination for me.

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