A Historian Forgotten: On Andrew Diemer’s “Vigilance”
By Bennett PartenMay 7, 2023
Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad by Andrew K. Diemer
But how to do it? Escaping slavery was always dangerous, especially when fleeing from a city as far south as Richmond. His answer: a box. Against the advice of a white shopkeeper who agreed to help him, Brown decided on a far-fetched plan to pack himself inside a shipping crate and mail himself to the offices of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society at 107 North 5th Street in Philadelphia. The half-day voyage turned into a 27-hour journey, but Brown arrived safely, cramped but alive.
One of the men who welcomed Brown as he struggled out of the crate was a young Black office clerk named William Still. In the coming years, Still would lead Philadelphia’s local Vigilance Committee, an organization dedicated to stowing away hundreds, if not thousands, of freedom seekers as conductors on the Underground Railroad—the network of loosely aligned agents that illegally aided enslaved people as they escaped to freedom in the years before the Civil War.
Andrew Diemer’s recent biography, Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad (2022), is a much-needed reappraisal of Still’s work leading the Vigilance Committee, alongside his other contributions to the antislavery movement. As Diemer suggests, historians tend to separate the covert Underground Railroad from overt political activism. Vigilance brings these two sides of Still together.
In his role as the head of the Vigilance Committee, Still kept a detailed diary of who came through his door and how much was spent to send them north. This was partly an exercise in accounting, of keeping up with expenses and reimbursing those who helped. But it was also about keeping connections alive, of knowing who had come from where or gone in which direction, so that reunions with friends or family might at some point be possible. In 1872, Still would use these notes as the basis for The Underground Railroad: A Record, a collection of firsthand accounts, letters, and articles that made him not just an abolitionist or a conductor but also a historian—and one of the nation’s very best.
William Still was born in 1821 to a free father and escaped mother in the Pinelands of southern New Jersey. His family’s original last name was Steel, which they changed to Still to evade the slave catchers who routinely patrolled the area. Indeed, one of the key facts of Still’s life, which Diemer does an excellent job of explaining, has to do with the political geography of the mid-Atlantic. Even after moving to Philadelphia, a free city and a hearth of abolitionism, Still remained surrounded by slavery. Maryland, a slave state, was a horse ride away. Delaware, another slave state, was even closer. Even New Jersey, a nominally free state just across the river from Philadelphia, reported a sizable population of enslaved people throughout the 1830s and ’40s.
Another key tenet of Still’s career as a conductor had to do with the advance of technology. What historians sometimes describe as the “market revolution”—the commercialization of American life in the early 19th century—connected Philadelphia to local economies up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Meanwhile, the “communication revolution,” marked by advancements in the postal service and the telegraph, kept Still in touch with a wider network of antislavery allies. Perhaps most importantly, the “transportation revolution” gave the world steamboats, railroads, and an expanded canal system that provided freedom seekers and conductors alike with a wider means of escape. Henry Brown—who later became known by the nickname “Box”—mailed himself via the newly minted Adams Express Company, a 19th-century equivalent to FedEx, while William and Ellen Craft, another famous pair of freedom seekers who came through Philadelphia, boarded several trains before taking a steamer north.
As Diemer shows us, Still’s work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad was always a function of his abolitionism. He was a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, worked as a clerk in the organization’s office, and was a protégé of sorts to James Miller McKim, the group’s secretary and the man who originally hired Still for the clerk position. Still was friends with most of Philadelphia’s leading abolitionists—a circle of activists that included Robert Purvis, Mary Grew, and James and Lucretia Mott. He kept up correspondence with many more from New York, Boston, and elsewhere, including Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, James W. C. Pennington, and Abraham Shadd and his daughter, Mary Ann, both of whom lived in Canada and promoted African American emigration north of the border. Mary Ann’s antislavery newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, routinely featured articles penned by Still.
Moreover, as far as allegiances went, Still was a committed follower of vaunted New England abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. To identify as a Garrisonian was to embrace radical stances, to demand an immediate end to slavery, to be a 19th-century feminist and an advocate for Black civil and political rights. Most controversially, Garrisonians also swore off the electoral process and adhered to a strict nonvoting position. Antislavery activism, according to Garrisonians, meant changing hearts and minds—what they called “moral suasion”—not changing votes or engaging in violence. To be a Garrisonian was also to subscribe to pacifism, a belief that aligned with Philadelphia’s Quaker roots.
While Still may have been a practicing Garrisonian, he was never—like many Black abolitionists—as dogmatic as some of his white peers. He preferred practical results over abstract questions of practice. The same was true for politics. As a Garrisonian, Still may have sworn off formal politics, but he also recognized that his work on the Underground Railroad carried political weight. Its success often caused Southerners to overreact and therefore overreach, which emboldened white Northerners even more. Still began relating some of the Underground Railroad’s success stories in his published writings to Mary Ann Shad because he wanted to give the escapees a voice, reveal the lengths to which they had gone to attain freedom, and let them tell their stories to a wider audience.
As the head of Philadelphia’s Vigilance Committee, Still had a network of contacts and agents whose identities he kept secret. He and others in Philadelphia often relied on safe houses to hide freedom seekers. Various contacts of his wrote in code or used familiar euphemisms, lest anyone search their letters; one wrote under the pseudonym “Ham & Eggs.” Secrecy was especially important for those working in slave states. For example, one of Still’s contacts was a Richmond-based steamboat captain named Albert Fountain, whose ship, the City of Richmond, routinely smuggled freedom seekers into Philadelphia—in one instance, even transporting over 20 people. There is no doubt that Fountain would have been hung if caught. The same would have likely been true for Thomas Garrett, a Wilmington-based conductor, who was perhaps Still’s most trusted ally south of Philadelphia. Still worked hard to conceal both Fountain’s and Garrett’s identities and protect them from detection.
For all the secrecy surrounding the Underground Railroad, much of the work of the Vigilance Committee was done out in the open. It was, at root, a formal organization and enterprise. The Committee raised funds to purchase train tickets, clothes, and meals for freedom seekers; pay antislavery lawyers, if necessary; and bail out accomplices, as in the Jane Johnson affair, where several of Still’s colleagues were arrested on spurious charges of trying to start a riot.
In several instances, white Philadelphia policemen serving as informants refused to act as slave catchers as the law demanded; in others, local Black stevedores or porters came to Still with news of escapees looking for help. The Underground Railroad was a community-wide effort on the part of Philadelphia’s Black population. The Vigilance Committee and Still himself were a testament to the community’s strength.
The work of the Vigilance Committee became dangerous after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed. A part of the Compromise of 1850, the new Fugitive Slave Law beefed up enforcement of the original fugitive slave clause in the United States Constitution. This clause had mostly gone unenforced in the antebellum period as Northern states passed “personal liberty laws,” which gave individuals the power not to help return people who had escaped slavery. The new Fugitive Slave Law, however, overrode many of these laws by federalizing the process of capturing and remanding freedom seekers. This law created its own federal police forces, its own court system, and, in a way, made every Northerner complicit in upholding slavery.
Even more damaging was the notorious Dred Scott v. Sandford decision of 1857. Issued by Chief Justice Roger Taney, the decision deemed “the right to hold property in man” absolute, meaning that there was no longer such a thing as a free or slave state; every state was now a slave state should a slaveholder travel there with enslaved people. Critically, it also declared that free Black people had no citizenship rights to speak of. This ruling was devastating to the work of the Underground Railroad because it suggested that free African Americans like Still could no longer access the courts or expect due process. Indeed, if the Fugitive Slave Law targeted freedom seekers, the Dred Scott ruling targeted freed people—and thus the entire infrastructure of the Underground Railroad.
Still began writing The Underground Railroad in 1870, but its origins date back to an evening in 1850 when a formerly enslaved person from Alabama, Peter Freedman, arrived at Still’s door looking for help. Freedman had been stolen from his mother when he was a young boy and lived most of his life enslaved in Alabama. In just the past year, he had managed to save up enough money to buy his freedom and was now hoping to do the same for his wife and children. But now he was in Philadelphia looking for his mother, aware that she had lived somewhere near the Delaware River. Freedman had a vague recollection of his mother’s face. He must have wondered if they would even recognize each other or if she was even still alive. It had been 40 years since he had last seen her.
Still sat and listened quietly as the man spoke. After winning Freedman’s confidence, he looked the man dead in the face and then said the unexpected: he told him that they were brothers. Still explained that his mother had two sons kidnapped at an early age. Freedman recalled his mother’s name and where she had lived; after a little more discussion, Freedman determined that Still must be telling the truth—that he was looking at a long-lost brother he didn’t know he had. From that moment on, Still decided to keep a record of those who passed through his door, noting who, from where, and how people had escaped; what they looked like; and what name they went by. His original motive for the book—indeed, all his research—had been to make more reunions possible, to heal the wounds of slavery’s irreparable past.
The book itself is designed as a compendium of sketches, a running record of individual escape stories. Some are told in detail, others only in brief. Still, however, is largely absent from the record. He wrote himself out of the narrative. This was a stylistic as well as political choice: he once again wanted the focus kept squarely on those who had escaped. His message was that they—not the conductors—were the lead actors in the great drama of the Underground Railroad.
Despite its style and structure, The Underground Railroad was also patterned on classical history. As Diemer shows, Still had written his daughter commenting on the example of Thomas Macaulay’s The History of England (1848), a work of “Whiggish history” and one of the most widely read nonfiction books of the 19th century. Still was also influenced by his friend William Wells Brown, who wrote The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), one of the first histories of African Americans ever written. Brown, who had escaped slavery himself, featured Still in his book, counting him among one of the great men of his race, and let Still read an early draft.
Like Macaulay’s History of England or Brown’s Black Man, The Underground Railroad is not devoid of politics. In a way, its publication was entirely political. By the time of its publication in the 1870s, however, the fight had evolved: it was no longer about ending slavery but rather securing civil and political rights for Black Americans. In Philadelphia, the city’s segregated streetcar system locked African Americans out of access to public transportation. Elsewhere, Southern revanchists were busy trying to dismantle Reconstruction in its entirety, often through overt acts of political violence.
William Still’s The Underground Railroad: A Record is thus a postwar complement to his work leading antebellum Philadelphia’s Vigilance Committee. His goal was to write the stories of the Underground Railroad into history so that they might shape the politics of the 19th century and testify to the sacrifices that formerly enslaved people made in the pursuit of freedom. The result is an astounding collection of stories relating the history of an underground institution, stories that would have been lost had Still not collected and then published them as a work of history.
We don’t usually remember William Still as an author and historian, but it is perhaps time we should.
Bennett Parten is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Southern University. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Civil War Monitor, and Zocalo Public Square.
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