The New Perspective on the Underground Railroad

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 because of its large Quaker and free black populations. There he met William Still, a free black abolitionist and mail clerk at the PASS. 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 had been “kidnapped” from their mother, whom he referred to as “Sidney.” “Carried south,” Levin had died a slave in Alabama, but Peter had 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 had been 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 the job as clerk at 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 heartbroken over the two sons she had left behind. Listening to Peter’s tale, William could not 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.”

“I think I can tell you all about your kinfolk, because you are my own brother,” confessed Still, after regaining his composure. He went on to assure Peter by offering a detailed account of their mother’s history, her escape, and how she had been forced to leave her two young sons in bondage. 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 whom he had 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 stationmasters 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 Act of 1850, Still assisted nearly one thousand slaves to freedom between 1853 and 1861. In the process, he earned the endearing moniker “Angel at Philadelphia.” Fortunately for historians, Still interviewed every freedom seeker who came into his care, eventually compiling the information into a 780-page book titled The Underground Railroad, published in 1872. The work is considered to be the most authentic source on the secret route to freedom.

“Underground Railroad” (UGRR) was a code name for the clandestine movement of African American slaves escaping out of the South to a loosely organized network of abolitionists who assisted them to freedom in the North. While the enterprise began sometime after 1780 with the Gradual Abolition Act in Pennsylvania, the UGRR was most active between 1835 and 1865. Traffic along the illegal route increased significantly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which greatly strengthened a similar 1793 law. The 1850 measure not only gave slaveholders the right to organize a posse anywhere in the United States to assist in recapturing a runaway but obligated courts, federal marshals, and bystanders to assist in the recapture.

Abolitionists adopted the vocabulary of the railroad to speak in code about their illegal activity. Underground suggested a secret, and railroad a method of transportation. Abolitionists who opened their homes to runaways were referred to as stationmasters, and their homes as stations. Other abolitionists who guided fugitives between stations were called conductors. “Stockholders” played a less dangerous—and less conspicuous role, but one that was extremely important. They provided the finances needed for bribes, transportation, food, and clothing.

William Still served in all three capacities: stationmaster, conductor, and stockholder. As chairman of the PASS’s General Vigilance Committee, he raised funds, corresponded with stationmasters and conductors, and coordinated the movements of fugitives along the Eastern Line of the UGRR, which originated in Virginia, extended through the border states of Maryland and Delaware into Pennsylvania, went on into New York or New England, and ended in Canada. He stocked a storehouse of food and clothing for runaways at his office at 31 North Fifth Street and aided in many daring escapes.

Vigilance committees, which existed in many northern cities, were the most structured vehicles of the UGRR. In Philadelphia, Quakers established and supported the PASS, but working-class blacks served as the backbone of its vigilance committee. Free blacks sheltered and transported fugitives and gathered and relayed crucial information to Still. Others kept watch for suspicious whites they observed in the hotels or boardinghouses or on the streets of the city. Many of the Vigilance Committee members belonged to Mother Bethel, the city’s oldest and largest African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, organized in 1794 by the Reverend Richard Allen, a former Delaware slave.

Acting from a sense of personal obligation to their enslaved brethren, Philadelphia’s free black community raised the bulk of the Vigilance Committee’s operating funds from African American benevolent societies and AME Church–affiliated auxiliaries. Their success is reflected in the number of runaways they assisted, which has been estimated at 495 between December 1852 and February 1857. Without Still’s intellect and energy to coordinate such an extensive network, however, the Vigilance Committee would not have been very effective. Deservedly, William Still, at his death in 1902, was known as “Father of the Underground Railroad” throughout the nation.

Until the late twentieth century, historians ignored William Still’s antislavery activities. Instead, the white abolitionists who wrote early accounts of the Underground Railroad tended to emphasize their own heroics, omitting the contributions of others, most notably the free black community and the fugitives themselves. Often these accounts gave rise to a mythology embellished and replicated in subsequent novels, plays, and, in some cases, historical monographs. The result was an overemphasis on white abolitionist involvement, particularly among Quakers, while fugitives were depicted as helpless, frightened passengers who took advantage of a well-organized national network. It was an over-simplification of a complex historical phenomenon that involved many religious groups as well as free blacks and fugitives themselves.

Further complicating matters was the failure to distinguish between the mythology, based on tradition, fiction, or convenience rather than fact, and folklore, based on the oral testimonies of African Americans. Folklore consists of customs, pastimes, songs, stories, and material culture that are grounded in fact and are often presented in tangible objects, such as arts and crafts. Quilts, for example, were believed to be used as a covert method of communication to aid runaways in their escape, though no primary source documentation exists to support this popular belief.

According to folklore, spirituals and popular slave songs also contained codes. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” directed slaves to follow a particular route of escape by way of the North Star. Similarly, “Go Down, Moses” announced the arrival of conductor Harriet Tubman, the so-called “Moses” of her people, and an impending escape. While folklore and oral testimonies are controversial because they lack corroboration in written documentation, these sources are central to the African American experience and must be addressed in any examination of the UGRR. Because most slaves could not read or write, they were dependent on oral testimonies to tell their history. Additionally, storytelling was fundamentally important to most African cultures as a method of transmitting their history across generations.

Not until the 1960s were the mythology and the folklore addressed by historians. Larry Gara was the first to identify the important roles of the fugitives and the free black community. He argued that the post–Civil War reminiscences by fame-hungry abolitionists and oral tradition exaggerated the history and operation of the UGRR. In Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961), Gara argued that free blacks like William Still were indispensable to the success of the UGRR and that the fugitive slaves themselves took an active role in their own escapes, receiving aid only after they had reached the border states. Horatio Strother provided a test case for Gara’s argument with his examination of fugitives who escaped to Connecticut. Benjamin Quarles added another important corrective with the publication of Black Abolitionists (1969). Quarles proved that free blacks played the most significant role in the northern vigilance committees, established to protect fugitives from the slave hunters who pursued them across the Mason-Dixon Line.

In 1977, James A. McGowan offered a more balanced treatment of the UGRR by emphasizing the interracial nature of the enterprise in his biography of Thomas Garrett, a white Quaker stationmaster. McGowan documented the partnership between Garrett and the free black community on the Eastern Line. He also gave long overdue credit to William Still and other African American agents, showing that the success of the movement was largely due to interracial cooperation.

During the 1980s, Charles L. Blockson renewed interest in the UGRR, particularly among African Americans. Blockson, in a series of works, stressed the larger—and more aggressive—role played by African Americans and their churches as most critical to the success of the UGRR. He based his research on family oral history and local records that had previously been ignored by scholars.

Public fascination with the UGRR grew in the 1990s when President Bill Clinton initiated a national dialogue on race. Both black and white Americans looked to the UGRR as a historical model of interracial cooperation and were aided by the works of a new generation of historians. James and Lois Horton quickly established themselves as the most knowledgeable scholars of the topic. Although their research focused on the free black communities of the antebellum North, the Hortons showed that those communities were able to transcend internal differences to cooperate with whites in such areas as abolitionism and involvement on the UGRR. Other works examined the interracial nature and operation of the UGRR as well as the folklore in a regional context. But only one of the histories offered a detailed statistical analysis of runaways themselves—Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, written by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger in 1999.

Investigating the “slave flight” of more than two thousand runaways between 1790 and 1860, Franklin and Schweninger conclude that the “great majority of these runaways” were “young men in their teens and twenties.” They were described as having “dark [skinned] complexion” and as having “travelled alone” instead of in a group. The authors found no discernible patterns in the method of travel or in the moment in time a slave chose to escape; rather, these decisions were “determined by individual circumstances.” These conclusions have been accepted by others who have written about the UGRR in the early twenty-first century.

However, Runaway Slaves also differs significantly from this examination of the fugitives assisted by William Still. The difference can be attributed to the nature of primary source documentation that Franklin and Schweninger use. They rely on newspaper notices of runaway slaves and petitions to southern legislatures and county courts. These records come from five states: Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Such a geographical distribution offers a representative cross section of southern states: two in the Upper South, one between the Upper and Lower South, and two in the Lower South, three in the East, and two in the West. But their data are incomplete. In addition, Franklin and Schweninger often rely on vaguely defined terms in their discussion of the legal implications of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This problem has resulted in a series of misunderstandings about the actual success of the draconian measure in limiting the number of escapes that occurred in the decade of the 1850s.

While Franklin and Schweninger’s random sample concentrates on runaways from the South, this study focuses on a self-contained body of documentary evidence from the border states, providing an in-depth look at one of the most important regions of UGRR activity. Other, lesser-known works have relied on William Still’s book in their interpretation of the UGRR’s Eastern Line, but none offer a careful statistical analysis of the nearly one thousand slaves he assisted.

Between 1853 and 1861, Still personally interviewed and ascertained the needs of 995 runaway slaves. Most of the fugitives traveled the Eastern Line of the UGRR, which began in the states of Delaware and Maryland. Still recorded their names as well as their age, skin color, and gender and paid careful attention to family information, such as number of siblings and names of parents, spouses, and children. He also recorded details about their bondage, including the owner’s name, how they were treated, and their reason for running away. Just as important to Still were the details of their escape: point of origin, date of departure, mode of travel, reward for capture, whether they were armed, or if there was any physical violence along the route to freedom.

Still compiled the information in a series of journals and kept them in his possession until 1859, when the papers of the radical abolitionist John Brown were seized by federal authorities after his unsuccessful attempt to lead a slave insurrection. Still, fearing that his own records might be “captured by a pro-slavery mob,” hid them in a Philadelphia cemetery and kept subsequent notes of his interviews “on loose slips of paper.” In 1872, Still published the records of 846 runaways in a 780-page book titled The Underground Railroad. Another 149 cases are contained in a separate “Journal C” that was never published.

Still’s book was reprinted in 1873, after he regained exclusive right to the publishing and distribution from Porter and Coates, the white-owned Philadelphia publishing house that produced the first edition of ten thousand copies. A second edition was published in 1883 titled Still’s Underground Railroad: With a Life of the Author and contained James Boyd’s thirty-two-page biography of the former Underground Railroad agent. In 1886, Still self-published a third and final edition with an additional twenty pages of revisions. This work is based on the 1872 edition reprinted in 1970 by Johnson Publishing Company of Chicago.

My William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia is a scholarly biography of the free black Philadelphia abolitionist and the most important UGRR agent in the city. Although Still later became a fervent civil rights reformer who fought for the integration of public transportation, his story is inextricably tied to the UGRR and his published account of the clandestine route to freedom. Accordingly, this book offers a detailed statistical analysis of the 995 runaway slaves who were assisted by Still in their passage to freedom. It is important to note however, that there are inconsistencies between Still’s published account and the unpublished “Journal C,” which contains information on many of the same slaves whose details are given in his 1872 book.

These inconsistencies occurred because of the need to hide the records from proslavery elements in the late 1850s. In some cases, Still was forced to recall the details of a conversation that might have taken place months earlier. In other cases, he simply speculated on the age or skin color of a runaway on the basis of his own observation. In this book, every effort has been made to reconcile the inconsistencies between the two sources. If a runaway is mentioned in both, the information contained in the published source is given priority in the database, while any additional information from Journal C is also integrated into the database. William Still goes beyond the historiography on the Underground Railroad in several important ways. First, the work is the only scholarly biography of William Still, one of the most prominent figures of the UGRR and the most influential agent on the Eastern Line.

Second, the biography analyzes Still’s own writing, which offers a self-contained body of work widely recognized by scholars as the most authentic record of the UGRR. Most of what we know about the operation of the secret network and the fugitives who traveled it came via word of mouth, slave narratives, or contemporary newspaper advertisements for runaways’ capture. While some agents claimed to have assisted hundreds of runaways, none saved records as detailed as those of William Still. As a result, Still’s 1872 book is considered by historians, writers, and researchers as the most valuable source on the UGRR, containing primary source information about runaway slaves.

Third, the book contains an accessible and detailed database of the 995 fugitives Still assisted. The data are categorized by some twenty different fields, including name, age, gender, skin color, date of escape, place of origin, mode of transportation, and literacy. The database serves as a valuable aid for other scholars by offering the opportunity to find new information and therefore a new perspective on runaway slaves who escaped along the Eastern Line of the UGRR.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: William Eastman, The Lord Is My Shepherd, 1863; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


William Kashatus

William 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. He is the author or co-author of thirty books, including Harriet Tubman: A Biography and In Pursuit of Freedom: Teaching the Underground Railroad.

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