William Still Preserved the Black History of Abolition at a Time of DangerRoundup
tags: slavery, abolition, African American history, archives, Underground Railroad, William Till
Julia W. Bernier completed her Ph.D. in African American Studies at UMass Amherst. She is an Assistant Professor of History at W & J College. Her work focuses on the lives of enslaved people, slavery, and abolition in the nineteenth century United States.
William Still, the leader of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) Vigilance Committee, kept meticulous records on the hundreds of women and men he helped escape slavery. Maintaining these records was no small risk. They were dangerous evidence of highly illegal activity in a nation whose fault lines fractured along the boundaries of slavery and where the territoriality of slave law extended far beyond its geographical boundaries through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (and that of 1793).1 Still collected information from freedom seekers as he helped usher them toward the relative safety of the North and Canada. Despite the dangers of keeping this evidence, Still hoped that doing so would help with familial reunions in the future. When not in use, he kept these journals safely hidden in a barn at a cemetery. After the Civil War, these records would become the basis for Still’s book, The Underground Railroad, first published in 1872.
The Underground Railroad was an act of Black memorialization when the freedoms won through the war were threatened by new iterations of anti-Black violence being used to dismantle Reconstruction. Still used his archive of underground railroad activism as a road map for radical action necessary to defeat slavery and its afterlife. In his introduction to the 1878 edition, Still makes his purpose clear. He explains that he owed it to the “cause of Freedom, and to the Fugitives and their posterity” to tell their stories before the public to ensure that readers would never forget the determined actions that African Americans undertook to escape slavery and bring about its destruction. He published these records not to amuse readers “but to show what efforts were made and what success was gained for freedom under difficulties.” Indeed, he understood that The Underground Railroad was needed precisely because those difficulties remained.
The book was intended to be a communal freedom narrative. In archiving the violence of slavery and resistance to it, Still’s text functioned as a type of counter-surveillance against the white supremacist version of history that would come to be known as the Lost Cause. No one who read The Underground Railroad could misunderstand the history of slavery, view emancipation as some mistake, nor entertain the idea that African Americans were unfit for freedom. As one of the first historians of the underground railroad, Still centered African American action and community activism and, thus, also ensured that readers could not willfully misunderstand the movement as simply a network of well-meaning white people.2 Still knew that the battles over Reconstruction’s path were about law, politics, and historical interpretation. Still “testif[ied]” for the actions of the “thousands and tens of thousands” whose stories told a very different version of events. This narrative held different meanings in 1872 and 1878, the years of the book’s first and second editions. By its second edition, published one year after the official dismantling of Reconstruction through the Compromise of 1877, Still knew that African Americans faced a new era of oppression in which both continued abolitionist and covert action would be required.
Still’s book is a testament to his editorial and organizing skills. In some eight hundred pages, The Underground Railroad excites, perhaps to the point of overwhelming, readers with the stories of hundreds of “self-emancipated” men and women. Still archives their stories through personal interviews, letters from activists, illustrations, portraits, and correspondence from enslavers and fugitive ads. Still’s book includes the ingenious escapes of Henry “Box” Brown and Ellen and William Craft. There are also portraits and biographical sketches of other abolitionists, like Still’s friend and co-conspirator, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, that round out the text’s contribution to the abolition movement’s history. He also shares his connections to slavery and the underground railroad with the story of his long-lost brother, Peter Still, and his family, which opens the text.
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