William Still was born 200 years ago today. A commitment to Black lives defines his life

Historian Linn Washington remembers the prominent Philadelphia activist and businessman William Still, who challenged laws and customs that discriminated against Black people.

William Still

William Still

Black Lives Matter is not a phrase generally associated with legendary 19th century Philadelphia activist William Still, whose work against slavery before America’s Civil War earned him the title “Father of the Underground Railroad” — the clandestine network that helped Black people flee bondage.

However, a commitment to make the lives of Black people matter defined William Still’s multi-faceted activism. From abolition to civil rights, Still challenged laws and customs that treated Black lives as far less worthy than whites’.

In July 1855, for example, Still risked imprisonment to challenge America’s notorious laws that considered enslaved Black people property. Still and six colleagues rescued an enslaved woman and her two sons from a ship ready to leave Philadelphia.

Still’s activism to improve the lives of Black people continued after the Civil War ended slavery. The desegregation of Philadelphia’s streetcars in March 1867 and the hiring of Philadelphia’s first Black police patrolmen in August 1881 were among campaigns Still spearheaded.

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William Still was born 200 years ago today on Oct. 7, 1821.

Still rose from impoverished beginnings on his parent’s farm in Burlington County, N.J. to attain unique stature and wealth in Philadelphia. His success as a businessman enabled philanthropy that included funds to educate Black children and care for Black elders. Still’s 1872 book on the Underground Railroad is widely considered one of the best publications on the subject.

Ironically, Still’s strides against white racism occasionally sparked bitter reactions among some Black people who were suspicious of his influential power and jealous of his prestigious wealth. Still responded to Black antagonists in the same manner he confronted white adversaries: with well-reasoned arguments delivered through impassioned speeches and eloquently written essays.

When some castigated Still in 1874 for suggesting that Black Philadelphians should end blind loyalty to the city’s hostile Republican city administration in favor of a progressive Democratic mayoral candidate, his stirring speeches and letters won converts nationwide.

Onslaughts to suppress voting rights of Blacks ravished Still’s time, like suppression actions today. A little-known facet of Still’s civil rights activism involved his efforts to help secure voting rights for Black women, then shunned by the white-led women’s suffrage movement. During Still’s time only men could vote, and Black men often encountered violence when voting.

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Another overlooked aspect of Still’s activism is his critiques of biased news coverage about Black people, practices that still provoke criticism.

Still, in The Underground Railroad, denounced daily newspapers for “grossly one-sided and unfair” coverage of the deadly September 11, 1851 clash in Christiana, Pennsylvania where armed Black people blocked the capture of three runaways. During one mass meeting at Philadelphia’s historic Mother Bethel Church, Still faulted inaccurate news coverage that “implied” Black people did not appreciate a white U.S. Senator whose efforts benefited “millions of our race.”

William Still remained active in struggles for Black equality until a year before he died in 1902.

The life of William Still provides extraordinary peeks into America’s racist past and perspectives on America’s present where many still deny the existence of the destructive institutional racism that Still battled.

The ‘racial reckoning’ now gripping America, sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, offers another opportunity to embrace a lesson spurned during William Still’s lifetime: Apathy toward ending inequality is more corrosive than the antipathy which spawns that injustice.

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