What would make a small New Jersey publisher reissue a book from the 1870s about the famed Underground Rail Road, a secret route to freedom for thousands of slaves? “The Underground Rail Road” is a 500-page trove of in-person interviews with fugitive slaves, written just before and during the Civil War by William Still, then of Philadelphia, and a “conductor” on the Underground Rail Road.
Still had been raised by parents born in slavery, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. John B. Bryans, editor-in-chief of Plexus Publishing in Medford, had seen members of the Still family — descendents of William Still — at a number of south Jersey historic events such as the Pinelands Discovery Festival and Pine Barrens Jamboree. “The family had some very intriguing titles, like ‘Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still,’ written by William Still’s brother, James, the ‘Black Doctor of the Pines.’ I had heard of James Still; he had an office here in Medford where we are.”
Bryans learned that “The Underground Rail Road” had gone out of print, its last edition published in 1975 by Johnson Publishing, publisher of Ebony magazine. “I thought it was criminal that the book wasn’t available. The Johnson edition was selling on eBay for $400. We looked at their edition and an original edition and I thought, ‘We can do better.’”
Plexus made several changes, including using a new trim size and larger font to make the book easier to read, and adding a bio of William Still written by Bryans and a foreword written by Sarah Smith Ducksworth, an English professor at Kean University. The manuscript was keyed from and proofed against the original 1872 edition published by Philadelphia’s Porter & Coates Publishers. (Still also published editions in 1878 and 1883.)
His great, great nephew, William Howard Still, will participate with other family members in a booksigning at the “Spirit of the Jerseys” State History Fair. This free rain-or-shine family event takes place on Saturday, May 6, at Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville. (Before becoming New Jersey, there was West Jersey and East Jersey, known collectively in Colonial times and after as “the Jerseys.”)
Family legend holds that all the Stills are descended from a prince of Guinea, abducted and transported to the Jerseys in the 1630s. Gloucester County’s Guineatown is purported to have been named for this kidnapped prince. The author was the youngest of 18 children. His young life proved as toilsome as that of any slave. The industrious boy was granted merely a handful of weeks of formal education. Yet, like his brother, James, William Still “managed to steal the art of reading and writing.”
The Underground Rail Road (yes, it was originally two words) itself was neither underground nor a railroad, but abolitionists did borrow railroad terms. “Conductors” went south to guide slaves to safety, and “stations” or “depots” were enclaves where slaves might be briefly concealed. There they received medicine, food, and some clothing, and were sometimes given meager funds before most headed out of the region and the country. Stations were set about 20 miles apart. Covered wagons and carts with false bottoms were constructed, as were ships and homes with “hidey holes.” The leg of the Underground Rail Road William Still wrote about had main stations in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Manhattan, Albany, Syracuse, and St. Catharines, Canada.
The author’s descendant, William Howard Still, farmed with his parents on leased land in New Jersey, then bought and farmed 266 acres together in Wyoming, Delaware. He is now retired and president of the Still Family Association, Inc. (founded in 1989), and living in Queens Village. He first came across his ancestor’s masterpiece while in high school in Hartford, New Jersey, near Moorestown. “We were farmers, you see. Didn’t have much education. Books were just not part of our life.” After a significant pause, he continues: “We were a religious family. Industrious. High morals. Cleanliness was very important.” Asked for his impression of the book, William Howard’s response resonates around the author: “He was way, way ahead of his time. You know, he was an entrepreneur. And self-taught. What this did was to cause me to introspect.”
Plexus Publishing’s new edition is studded with startling portraits — in eloquent words, evocative line drawings, and searing photographs. “Desperate Conflict in a Barn” and “Death of Romulus Hall” vie with the emergence of William “Box” Peel Jones, “who’d had himself boxed up by a near relative and forwarded by the Erricson line of steamers.” Readers come face to face with “stockholders and advisers of the Road” (facilitators of escape), as well as those who achieved liberty by fair means and foul. Rescuers were “gagged, mobbed, and murdered,” as well as severely fined ($1,000) and jailed (six months) per escapee.
Plexus Publishing commissioned the book’s cover painting, “A Passage to Freedom,” from another Still descendant, artist Francine Still Hicks. The painting reveals a columnar style reminiscent of Diego Rivera. It depicts a modern “holy family” — a Lincolnesque William Still reaches one arm toward a chained male slave, his other shielding a woman who clutches her naked infant.
At “The Spirit of the Jerseys History Fair” William Howard Still will be joined by other Still family members. In addition to “The Underground Rail Road” they will sign and discuss their other histories, including the James Still book and “The Kidnapped and the Ransomed,” a narrative of the incredible life of Peter, a brother of William and James. Born in slavery, six-year-old Peter had to be left behind with his brother, Levin, a field hand, for his mother’s second bid for freedom; her first had ended in capture in a free state and return to bondage. Vicious tenets of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 not only admonished residents of all states to seek out and turn in escapees, it also triggered Harriet Beecher Stowe’s feverish penning of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
So long as William Still lived, he knew his mother’s agony over two lost sons. Levin would be lashed to death, buried in a slave’s grave. At 46, Peter would find his way to Philadelphia — and back to his brother, William Still, born in freedom in the Pine Barrens and now a major force freeing slaves through his membership in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. This intrepid man followed illustrious footsteps: Benjamin Franklin had served as president of Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery from 1785 until the end of his own remarkable life in 1790.
In Philadelphia William went on not only to shepherd fugitives to freedom but especially to record, then publish the in-person slave encounters. Because of his mother’s unrelenting grief, Still’s overriding purpose was to reunite families. So incendiary were his notes that Still cached each night’s batch in a crypt in a nearby cemetery. He “had not foreseen an end to slavery, and therefore never imagined the publishing of a single fugitive story.” But like those who transported, housed, and fed escapees to and through “the Great Disturbance in the South” Still carried on.
Philadelphia served the first tastes of freedom to people who had left behind family, their very clothes, even their given names. With Quakers leading the way, Philadelphia was alight with the courage and generosity of hundreds, whose stories, as Still writes in “The Underground Rail Road,” “The half will never be told of the barbarism of slavery.”
The stories in “The Underground Rail Road” are heart-stopping. Estimates reach as high as 100,000 “bondsmen” freed with the aid of heroes such as William Still, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and by nameless everyday citizens. Fugitives were trundled north of the Mason/Dixon Line through impossible schemes and disguises, by land and by sea, by night far more than by day. Many escaped dressed as the opposite gender. Others clung, drenched, to the outsides of ships. The lighter-skinned went so far as to steal horses and carriages, posing as their own masters.
Working often by night, usually in solitude, always in danger, Philadelphia’s men and women opened their doors to the unfortunate. Those born under “the Peculiar Institution” rarely had a good word for slave owners. All but a few interviews reveal barbarous masters. In reproduced advertisements of reward for return of human beings, those who had fled were described as “My boy” or “the article.” Slaves in wills were “personal inventory.” It was the norm for owners to cleave infants from the breast, send spouses “South” to cotton and to cane work, which often proved fatal.
Masters were relentlessly described as members of whatever church, attending faithfully, only to return home to starve and lash those who worked their fields. Often masters’ only obvious adherence to the Bible was insistence that female slaves “increase and multiply.” William Still meticulously reported the varied hues among those black men, women, and children, who finally emerged at his Philadelphia “house, a depot for fugitives.” William Still even sheltered participants of John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry Insurrection in his Philadelphia home.
White owners were described as “mean, stingy, especially with food;” frequently “in the cup;” and “quick with the whip and the knife.” Masters rented out slaves, all fees going into the “owner’s” pockets. One fugitive reported, “but 11 cents is all I ever received from my master.” For centuries, whites have insisted on slaves having been happy in their care: “Why, they were part of the family!” Reality lies instead in Still’s litany. Uppermost in every slave’s mind — no matter how “beloved” by owners — was that “the auction block and the slave pen were always in view.”
‘The Great Unpleasantness,” as some termed the Civil War, having ended at last, William Still’s talents and determination led him to millionaire status. He was a seller of wood and coal stoves, then he became a coal merchant. He campaigned successfully to end discrimination against Negroes on the town’s streetcars, and for the appointment of the first black police officers. He founded an orphanage for children of black soldiers and sailors and founded the first black YMCA. Dying on an anniversary of freedom (Bastille Day), 1902, the New York Times memorialized William Still as “the Father of the Underground Rail Road.”
For proof that some conditions of discrimination remain, we need only replay tapes of displaced blacks in Hurricane Katrina’s wake. Or read “Black in Two Worlds,” the memoir of Carl A. Fields recently published by Princeton’s Hanna Fox of Red Hummingbird Press. Need we be reminded that southern students at Princeton, dubbed by southerners as “our most northerly southern university,” undertook their studies served by slaves?
Plexus initially published 1,500 copies and have sold or otherwise distributed just over 1,000, so Bryans says they will definitely go back to print. The book has been very well-received. Joseph C. Certaine, an African-American of slave ancestry (some of his ancestors fought with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War), an historian and Civil War reenactor (as a Buffalo soldier) wrote in a letter to Bryans: “My ancestors fought with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. I have always dedicated myself to the struggle for political, social, and economic equality. This book shows us all why it is important to never give up.”
Plexus subsequently invited Certaine to speak at a launch event at African American Museum in Philadelphia. Bryans, who considers the book to be “the most important book ever published by Plexus Publishing, certainly during my tenure,” says he hopes that the book will be used in courses at middle and high schools and colleges, and that it will also appeal to “the ordinary person, because what makes it different is the firsthand stories, compiled by Still, who was a ‘conductor’ on the Rail Road. The stories make us put things in perspective. We will not allow this great book to go out of print again!”
One line alone from the book sums up the power of this volume: “Slavery, indeed,” one escapee charged, “makes the most hardened savages the world ever knew.”
Discussion and booksigning of “The Underground Railroad,” written by William Still, Saturday, May 6, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., New Jersey State History Fair, Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville. Lecture by William Howard Still, a direct descendent of William Still. Rain or shine. Free. For more information on the fair visit www.njhistoryfair.org.