The Underground Railroad is the name given to an elaborate system of secret routes established some 30 years prior to the Civil War (1860-1865) by which more than 100,000 slaves escaped to freedom. The network of routes extended all the way to Canada, which was called “Freedom’s Land.”
Named after the emerging steam railroad system, the Underground Railroad used many of the same railroading terms. Those who went south to find slaves looking for freedom were called “pilots.” Those who guided them along the way were “conductors.” The runaways were called “passengers.” Those who gave money or supplies were called “stockholders.” Buildings where slaves could rest and hide were called “stations”–these could be private homes, churches or places of business.
Stations were determined by word of mouth and were added or removed from the “railroad” if ownership changed or if the station was discovered as a refuge for fleeing slaves. The distance from one station to the next was between 10 and 20 miles.
Arriving at a station, even in a free northern state, did not guarantee freedom. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1950 meant big money for bounty hunters. Southern slave owners were not ready to lose their property and were willing to pay to get it back. Captured slaves were returned to their owners while those who helped them faced jail time.
Though freedom was a sweet reward, it often came at a heartbreaking price. Runaway slaves left parents, husbands, wives and even children behind. The dangerous trips were always made at night, with conductors and passengers following the North Star.
While Harriet Tubman is known as the “Mother of the Underground Railroad,” William Still is the lesser-known “Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still first helped an escaping slave while he was still a boy. As one of the conductors of the Underground Railroad, Still would help hundreds escape to freedom.
Still was born on Oct. 7, 1821, in Burlington County, N.J., and was the youngest of Sidney and Levin Steel’s 18 children. Levin Steel escaped slavery in Maryland, fleeing to New Jersey. He changed his last name to “Still” to protect his wife. William Still’s mother had escaped once before but was recaptured. She escaped a second time and joined her husband, bringing their two daughters with her. Their two sons were left behind with their grandmother and were eventually sold to a slave master in the Deep South.
In 1844, Still moved to Philadelphia. He taught himself to read and write and got a job as a clerk and janitor for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Still headed the committee to help runaway slaves reach Philadelphia. By 1850, he was a prominent leader of Philadelphia’s Black community and a respected businessman, selling stoves and delivering coal.
In 1849, Still met Tubman, who had herself escaped from slavery in Maryland. Both became key conductors, guiding runaway slaves to freedom. Still used his own house as a station along the Underground Railroad and helped scores to freedom. Among those was his older brother Peter, who had been left behind during their mother’s escape some 40 years earlier.
In 1859, Still was crucial in the desegregation of Philadelphia’s streetcars. Blacks had to pay the full fare yet had to ride on the outside of the car. Still wrote a letter to the press, which focused international attention on this racist practice. In 1867, Pennsylvania legally banned segregation on its streetcars.
For 14 years, the humble Philadelphia businessman tirelessly helped as many runaways as he could get to Freedom’s Land, and committed himself to making sure that their stories would not go untold. In 1872, he published “The Underground Railroad,” which remains the most definitive account of the slave exodus. The book, which is based on Still’s meticulous records and diaries, contains the best evidence of the structure and workings of the Underground Railroad, as well as details of those who used it, where they came from, how they escaped and the families they left behind.
“The heroism and desperate struggle that many of our people had to endure, under the terrible oppression that they were under, should be kept green in the memory of this and coming generations.
“It was my good fortune to lend a helping hand to the weary travelers flying from the land of bondage.”
William Still died on July 14, 1902.
- Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the Underground Railroad and the life and work of William Still.
- Talk About It: Discuss the importance of the Underground Railroad and the dangers that the passengers and conductors faced.
- Write It Down: Good record keeping was an important part of Still’s work and the basis of his book, “The Underground Railroad.” Choose an important event in your life and write an essay about it. Imagine that someone will be reading it in the future. Try to make your report as detailed as possible.
This Week in Black History
- May 16, 1966: Stokely Carmichael is named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
- May 17, 1988: Renowned ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia E. Bath of Los Angeles patents a device that removes cataracts using laser technology.
- May 18, 1896: In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upholds the doctrine of “separate but equal,” ushering in the infamous Jim Crow era.
- May 19, 1925: Malcolm Little is born in Omaha, Neb. He would become known as Malcolm X.