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Harriet Tubman is the best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad, but she didn’t work alone. William Still, a Philadelphia abolitionist and businessman, often assisted Tubman, her passengers, and other enslaved people making their way to freedom, providing funding, arranging shelter, and, critically, writing things down. Still and Tubman’s courageous partnership is the subject of The Quest for Freedom and Dignity: Celebrating William Still and Harriet Tubman, at Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.
Principally a research archive, the Blockson collection is devoted to the study of the history and culture of people of African descent. Its holdings include Still’s papers from 1865 to 1899, including a book compiled from interviews Still conducted with those traveling through Philadelphia on the secret network of routes and safehouses that stretched from the deep south into Canada. A first edition of The Underground Railroad (1872), is on view, bound in emerald green leather.
Still’s book is key to the archive’s origin. As a youth, founder Charles L. Blockson came across a copy in an old Philadelphia bookstore. It included the story of Jacob Blockson, who escaped enslavement in 1858, and mentioned a cousin, James, who’d been enslaved in Delaware. James was Charles Blockson’s great-grandfather. The future historian bought the book, and set off on his lifework.
Still (1821-1902) was the youngest of 18 children of formerly enslaved parents. His father Levin purchased freedom in 1798. His mother Charity escaped enslavement in Maryland in 1806 with two of the family’s then four children. After one failed attempt, she had no choice but to leave behind sons Levin and Peter, who were soon sold to a Kentucky slave trader.
Still, born free in New Jersey, taught himself to read and write. He moved to Philadelphia, and became clerk for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Still also led the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, assisting Black people endangered by the Fugitive Slave Law, and from 1852 to 1860, quietly aided the Underground Railroad.
When travelers came to his offices, Still carefully noted whom had enslaved them, names they’d been given, and what they chose to call themselves. “He included a general description of the person sitting across from him, as well as the main reasons for the escape,” wrote Tubman biographer Beverly Lowry, adding, “Still was acting as much in the interest of proficiency and pragmatism as for historical purposes: He wanted to make certain that the people who came to him were genuinely in need and not informers or spies.” In one such encounter, Still realized he was questioning Peter, one of the brothers he’d never met. His records reunited many families shattered by slavery.
Still’s documentation also proved that African Americans actively sought and secured their own freedom. According to Blockson collection curator Diane D. Turner, The Underground Railroad is “the only first person account of Black activities on the Underground Railroad written and self-published by an African American.” Still, who became successful in real estate and coal, would fight for abolition and civil rights throughout his life.
The woman synonymous with the Underground Railroad
Tubman (1822-1913) was born enslaved on Maryland’s eastern shore, the fifth of nine children. She gravitated to outdoor work, which enabled her to learn the geography of forests, wetlands, and waterways that became her escape routes.
Though Tubman never learned to read, she inspired picture books, biographies, histories, and articles for generations of readers, some of which are on view here. A glance at the titles hint at what her life represents to oppressed people: “The Moses of Her People,” “The Modern Amazon,” “Negro Soldier and Abolitionist,” and, on a 25¢ pamphlet with an introduction by Booker T. Washington, “The Heroine in Ebony.”
A modern spotlight
The exhibition commenced last fall, on Still’s 200th birthday, and continues through Tubman’s 200th birthday this spring, and is just one in a series of recent events bringing heightened attention to the icon’s legacy.
The region Tubman traveled, reaching 125 miles from Maryland’s eastern shore to Philadelphia, is designated the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway. Fittingly, it ends at 241 South 12th Street, Still’s last residence.
In 2016, Tubman was selected by President Obama to replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. The Biden administration recently confirmed that the redesign, a lengthy process, is underway. Tubman was also celebrated in a 2019 feature film, Harriet.
In 2020, Cape May, New Jersey, opened the Harriet Tubman Museum, to showcase African American history, as well as Tubman’s presence, in the resort—she periodically worked summers to fund rescue trips. And Philadelphia is currently exhibiting Wesley Wofford’s statue of Tubman, The Journey to Freedom, as part of a citywide celebration.
After escaping enslavement herself in 1849, Tubman made approximately 13 trips back to Maryland escorting about 70 people to freedom, and providing directions for 70 more. That would be enough reason to remember Tubman, but she did much more. She served the Union as a nurse and spy in the Civil War. She worked for suffrage. She founded a home to care for elderly Black residents of Albany, New York, where she settled. The legacy of Harriet Tubman and William Still continues to inspire those who fight for freedom.
What, When, Where
The Quest for Freedom and Dignity: Celebrating William Still and Harriet Tubman. Through June 30, 2022, at Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University, 1st Floor, Sullivan Hall, 1330 W. Polett Walk, Philadelphia. To arrange a visit, please contact Blockson collection librarian Aslaku Berhanu, [email protected] or (215) 204-4723.
Temple University follows Covid-19 guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and the City of Philadelphia. Visitors and all members of the campus community must wear masks indoors and in enclosed spaces. Current information is available here.
Temple University is committed to making its facilities accessible. The main entrance to Sullivan Hall has steps, but an accessible entrance is available. General information on accommodations in campus buildings is available here. Please contact Blockson Collection librarian Aslaku Berhanu, (215) 204-4723.
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