William Still: Joining the Abolitionists (02:12)
William Still, a freeman, taught himself to read and write and moved to Philadelphia to work. In autumn of 1847, Still became a clerk with the Pennsylvania Anti-slavery Society. As a part of the Underground Railroad, this group secretly aided slaves in escaping captivity in the South.
America Divided: North and South (02:39)
By 1860, America’s four million slaves were worth more than the major industries of the time combined. The Mason-Dixon Line divided the abolitionist North from the slave-owning South. Pennsylvania’s location as well as its large Quaker and freed black populations contributed to the Underground Railroad’s success.
Escape and the Underground Railroad (03:14)
The Underground Railroad threatens to destabilize the South by exposing slave discontent and encouraging them to run. Many slave owners viewed the Underground Railroad as organized banditry. Marshals, hunting dogs, and slave catchers answering reward advertisements made escape difficult for runaways.
William Still: Family History (06:37)
Family separations at slave auctions were commonplace and devastating, driving many to escape. Still’s father purchased his own freedom, but his mother had to abandon her two sons in order to escape captivity in Maryland with his sisters. His family’s flight was a formative story in Still’s life and character.
Henry Brown and Underground Secrecy (04:09)
William Still became one of the chief conductors of the Underground Railroad, using his own residence as a safe house and helping around 60 slaves escape per month. Henry “Box” Brown was successfully mailed to the Anti-Slavery Society office from captivity. Brown’s newfound celebrity status resulted in the imprisonment of the merchant who aided his escape.
Meeting with Peter Still (08:07)
A chance encounter resulted in William Still meeting his long-lost brother, Peter Freedman. Inspired by his reunion with his brother, Still kept secret notes documenting the runaway slaves’ stories in hopes of reuniting families. The publishing of Freedman’s story lead to a fellow Underground Railroad veteran attempting to rescue Freedman’s family from captivity in Alabama.
Fighting the Fugitive Slave Act (09:17)
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in an attempt to mollify the South and end the Underground Railroad. Thousands of free and fugitive blacks fled to Canada from all over the United States to avoid being sent back. Slave owners portrayed Canada as a wasteland to dissuade escape attempts and make slavery appear preferable.
Underground Railroad: Success in Philadelphia (05:22)
Despite being illegal, the Underground Railroad is largely protected in Philadelphia thanks to public opinion. William Still used a loophole in Pennsylvania state law to liberate Jane Johnson from her owner John Hill Wheeler during a trip to the state. Still is arrested but acquitted during the federal trial due to the testimony of Jane, now a freewoman.
Newfound Freedom in Canada (06:30)
With the help of William Still, 15-year-old Ann Maria Weems escaped slavery disguised as a male coachman. Many black communities grew in Canada, despite slave hunters waiting along the border. Black Americans faced racism and prejudice.
Civil War and William Still's Retirement (04:27)
Former slaves fought for the Union Army, and William Still procured supplies for troops at Fort William Penn. In his retirement, Still won a court battle that desegregated Philadelphia’s streetcars and ran a successful coal business. At the final Anti-Slavery Society meeting, Still received permission to publish his secret notes, which he hoped could reconnect families of escaped slaves.
Underground Railroad: The William Still Story: Credits (02:06)
Underground Railroad: The William Still Story: Credits
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