“The times requires this testimony”: William Still’s The Underground Railroad

“Arrival of freedmen and their families at Baltimore, Maryland — an everyday scene,” circa 1865 (NYPL)

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.

While contemporary readers may have known the stories of people like Brown and the Crafts from the pages of abolitionist newspapers, Still also focuses on “arrivals,” those everyday individuals most of his readers would never have heard of without his book. He recorded information about their identities, homes, enslavers, and experiences in slavery and as runaways. Still also documented how arrivals learned about his office, their needs, and information on their family members. In doing so, he ushered their lives into the historical record. Each story was a lesson in history, self-determination, bravery, and collective action. As Still knew they would, these stories require readers to ask whether there could ever be a mundane escape from slavery.

Still’s archival practice is also of note in constructing a historical record. The Underground Railroad was a re-interpretation of antebellum abolitionists archiving under the confines of moral suasion.3 Still includes documentation of slavery’s terror that was common in abolitionist print culture and which often functioned not only to expose the violence of slavery but also to the enslaved to further violation through the violence of that very evidence. However, in Still’s hands, these inclusions function differently.

Still does not merely present these documents to stand alone but instead uses them to fill out the stories of those whose journeys he records. He juxtaposes the humanity of his subjects with the inhumanity of the institution that they were up against. His freedom seekers first speak for themselves through interviews and action.

Stephen Taylor, for instance, was, in Still’s description, a “young man of promise” who feared being sold by his enslaver. Taylor was eventually able to escape from Maryland to Pennsylvania and on to Canada with the help of the Vigilance Committee. Still described how the committee was pleased to see that “one more slave-holder is minus another slave worth at least $1200.” Still records Taylor’s value as a marker of slavery’s barbarity which reduced human beings to property values. Taylor’s “price” is also used in this context to comment on the successful evasion of the violent property regime of slavery. Taylor had fled his value as human property by both escaping the impending threat of sale and slavery itself.

Still gives readers an alternative way to understand Taylor’s value as a “young man of promise.” We learn something of his value on his terms, not those of his enslavers. Further, the monetary values that Still includes in his records speak to something of the underground railroad’s success. Enslavers had lost millions of dollars because of the actions of runaways like Taylor and supporters like Still. Still’s use of fugitive ads functions similarly. Their inclusion serves as evidence to indict enslavers with their own words and to expose their names. But in Still’s hand, they are shared in the context of the counter-surveillance that helped the enslaved remain free. The ads allowed members of vigilance committees to alert each other of the presence of slave catchers in their cities. Thus, these documents allow for critical reflection and sometimes a bit of ironic humor. They exposed enslavers as out of place and out of bounds amid the “friends of freedom.” The abolitionist organizing of Still’s underground railroad helped turn this textual practice into a historical reality as the successes Still set out to record literally brought his book into being. Given the nature of the documentation, The Underground Railroad could not exist without the end of slavery which, through their actions, these “friends of freedom” had finally achieved.

This was the inheritance that Still set out to archive and revive in 1872. His historical practice redefined the use of evidence in portraying Black life and toward what ends. The book was another example of his continued activism in the post-war era, which included challenging segregated transportation, another movement whose history he chronicled, attending national conventions, and working with the Freedmen’s Aid Union and Commission. He published The Underground Railroad because he knew that the legacy of abolition could not rest on memory alone. As he claimed, the “times require[d] this testimony.” Still’s record of radical abolitionist action remains a model for creating freedom out of community and community out of freedom. In these ways, The Underground Railroad presents a model of memory and struggle that we can continue to look towards.

  1. Stephan G. Hall, A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 126. Hall, “To Render the Private Public: William Still and the Selling of the Underground Railroad” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 127(1): 35-55.
  2. Larry Gara, “William Still and the Underground Railroad,” Pennsylvania History (Jan. 1961, Vol. 20, No. 1): 33-44, 40
  3. Garvey describes American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of A Thousand Witnesses, published in 1839 by the American Anti-Slavery Society and edited by Theodore Weld and Angelina and Sarah Grimké, as a prototype database. Other texts, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) would follow suit. Ellen Gruber Garvey, “‘facts and FACTS:’ Abolitionists’ Database Innovations,” in “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron edited by Lisa Gitelman, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013).
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Julia W. Bernier

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. She is also interested in studying and addressing slavery’s afterlife on university campuses and beyond. She is currently working on her book about self-purchase in the United States which will be published with the University of Pennsylvania Press. Follow her on Twitter @jwbernier.

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