Sanctuary Road:An oratorio Based on the writings of William Still, a conductor for the Underground Railroad
Music by Paul Moravec / Text by Mark Campbell
We Are One
Monday, MaY 7, 2018, 8:00 pm
William Still (1819 or 21–1902), the “Father of the Underground Railroad,” was born in New Jersey, the last of eighteen children born to a freedman and an escaped slave. In 1844 Still moved to Philadelphia, which after Boston was the most active abolitionist enclave in the country. Three years later he began working for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. In 1850, when the Society formed a Vigilance Committee to help escaped slaves, Still became first its secretary and then its chairman.
During his time with the Vigilance Committee, Still helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom. The Committee provided food and shelter while the escaped slaves recovered from their ordeals, protected them from slave hunters—the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act did not guarantee their safety, even in the North—and helped them in their further travels, often to Canada. One man, Peter Gist, bought his freedom at age 50 and visited the Committee office hoping to find his parents and siblings. He was so young when his mother was forced to leave him behind that he did not remember his parents’ surname. As Still listened to the man’s stories, he recognized them as stories his mother had told about the two sons she had been forced to leave behind when she escaped. Still realized that Peter Gist was his brother and learned that his other brother, Levin, had died from a beating he received for paying an unauthorized visit to his wife. Recording the stories gained a new importance for Still. He saw them as a way to reunite families.
Still kept detailed records of the escaped slaves names, aliases, biographies, and destinations. He also recorded information about their owners and saved newspaper notices and handbills, personal correspondence, committee minutes, and legal documents. Since assisting escaped slaves was illegal—many conductors were arrested and even murdered—he kept his records hidden.
In 1872 Still published The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c. Narrating the Hardships, Hair-Breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom as Narrated by Themselves or Others, or Witnessed by the Author: together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisors of the Road. He drew on the records he had saved during his years with the Underground Railroad and added biographies of leading activists in the cause. In total, the book was 800 pages long. It was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition and remains an important source for historians, not only for its stories of the escaped slaves, but for its glimpses of life in the 1850s—slave and free.
During Civil War, Still operated the post exchange at Camp William Penn, the training camp for African American soldiers. He also opened a stove store, bought a coal yard, and began a coal-delivery business, which continued after the war and provided him with a comfortable income. He had significant real estate holdings, owned stock in The Nation, was a member of the Philadelphia's Board of Trade, and financed and was an officer of the Social and Civil Statistical Association of Philadelphia, which in part tracked freed people.
Still advocated for equal rights for the African American community. Beginning in 1859, he challenged segregation on Philadelphia’s public transit system, continuing the campaign until the Pennsylvania legislature integrated streetcars throughout the state in 1865. He also lobbied for equal educational opportunities for African Americans, advocated temperance, was a member of the Freedmen's Aid Union and Commission, and served as a trustee for Storer College and an officer of the Philadelphia Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored Persons. As an elder in the Presbyterian church, he established Sunday schools to promote literacy among former slaves. He also helped establish an orphanage and Philadelphia’s first YMCA for African Americans and served on the boards for the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home and the Home for the Destitute Colored Children.
William Still had four children who survived to adulthood. His daughter Caroline was one of the first female medical doctors in the country. Frances became a kindergarten teacher. His son William became a lawyer; Robert became a journalist and owned a print shop. His extended family includes William Grant Still, the “Dean of African American Composers.” The Still family holds reunions in Lakeside, NJ every year.