June 19 is Juneteenth, the celebration of emancipation as it reached the final enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy in 1865. It took more than two years for news of Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863 to arrive in Texas — a foreshadowing of the slow pace racial equality would assume in America. Lincoln’s proclamation applied only to the “states in rebellion” and since Maryland was a border state, emancipation here depended on the 1864 act of the state legislature.
While Juneteenth is a celebration of the pride and determination of African Americans and of achievements in every field of endeavor, it is also a time to recognize and pay tribute to the lives of those enslaved who came before emancipation.
Perhaps nothing illustrated the fierce desire of the enslaved for freedom as much as the success of the Underground Railroad, the dangerous network of passages many determined men and women followed to escape their enslavement. Harriet Tubman, a Maryland – and national – heroine who led so many north to a new life, is well known. But here’s the story of another important figure in the Underground Railroad, William Still.
William Still’s parents were enslaved in Caroline County, Maryland, near the plantation of Richard Loockerman, who lived with his family at Hammond-Harwood House. Still wrote The Underground Railroad, a Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, Etc. For many years Still worked at the Anti-Slavery Office in Philadelphia, and he held the title “Chairman of the Acting Vigilant Committee of the Philadelphia Branch of the Underground Rail Road.” He interviewed the fugitives who arrived at the office, keeping a record of their bravery, perseverance, and resourcefulness.
The book was published in 1872, many years after the events in it were recorded by William Still. Because it contains details of Underground Railroad routes and names of conductors and other leaders as well as the location of escaped slaves, the records could not be made public.
Here is William’s own story.
His parents were both enslaved in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His father was able to purchase his own freedom and left for New Jersey. His mother attempted to escape and join him, taking an infant in arms, a toddler, and two young sons on a harrowing journey by night. However, she was caught and returned to her “owner.” She tried again, this time taking only the two younger children, leaving the boys behind with the thought that they were better able to care for themselves until a plan could be made to retrieve them. William’s parents stayed in New Jersey and had 14 more children; William was the youngest.
The two boys left behind were sold numerous times and ended up in the deep south; Levin died as result of injuries from being whipped, the other — Peter–escaped with his wife and reached Philadelphia in search of his family — this was 40 years after his mother had had to leave him behind in Maryland. In search of records of his family members, he visited the Anti-Slavery Office, where he met William, who worked there recording the stories of enslaved men and women who had escaped on the Underground Railroad. They soon realized they were brothers — a stunning reunion after so many years had passed..
William had begun as a clerk for the Anti-Slavery Society and rose to a prominent position as the recorder of the escaped slaves’ journeys and intepreter of their future needs.
What should we know about these records of William Still’s? He developed a set of questions as the basis for each entry, but he didn’t necessarily stick to just the facts of each individual’s story. He was interested in motives, dangers they faced, conditions under slavery, family connections, ultimate goals — the society raised money to fund the resettlement of many to Canada or other places safely north and out of the way of patrollers searching for escapees, who could be found and returned south under the Fugitive Slave law.
Here’s a selection from the introduction to this important and persuasive book::
It was…one of the most gratifying facts connected with the fugitives, the strong love and attachment that they constantly expressed for their relatives left in the South; the undying faith they had in God as evinced by their touching appeals on behalf of their fellow-slaves. But few probably are aware how deeply these feelings were cherished in the breasts of this people. Forty, fifty, or sixty years, in some instances elapsed, but this ardent sympathy and love continued warm and unwavering as ever. Children left to the cruel mercy of slave-holders, could never be forgotten. Brothers and sisters could not refrain from weeping over the remembrance of their separation on the auction block: of having seen innocent children, feeble and defenceless women in the grasp of a merciless tyrant, pleading, groaning, and crying in vain for pity. Not to remember those thus bruised and mangled, it would seem alike unnatural, and impossible. Therefore it is a source of great satisfaction to be able, in relating these heroic escapes, to present the evidences of the strong affections of this greatly oppressed race.
The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD A RECORD OF FACTS, AUTHENTIC NARRATIVE, LETTERS Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their efforts of Freedom, AS RELATED BY THEMSELVES AND OTHERS, OR WITNESSED BY THE AUTHOR; For many years connected with the Anti-Slavery Office in Philidelphia, and Chairman, of the Acting Vigilant Committee of the Philadelphia Branch of the Underground Rail Road.
By Barbara Goyette, Executive Director