cover image Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad

Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad

Andrew K. Diemer. Knopf, $30 (432p) ISBN 978-0-593-53438-0

In this well-researched and vividly written biography, Towson University historian Diemer (The Politics of Black Citizenship) spotlights the crucial contributions of William Still (1821–1902) to the abolitionist movement. A leader of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, Still helped turn Philadelphia into a crucial juncture of the Underground Railroad, though his contributions have been overshadowed by other conductors, including Harriet Tubman. Still was motivated, according to Diemer, by his own mother’s flight from slavery in Maryland, and in the meticulous records he kept of the Underground Railroad, Still highlighted the bravery of enslaved men and women who attempted escape. Diemer also delves into Still’s ideology of Black self-sufficiency and tracks his journey to becoming a prosperous coal merchant and one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest Black men. Also recounted are Henry “Box” Brown’s 1849 escape from a Virginia plantation by mailing himself in a crate to Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society office; the 1851 Christiana riot, in which a free Black community refused to surrender four fugitives to a slaveholder’s posse; and other watershed events. This immersive history sheds valuable light not just on Still, but on the communal workings of the abolitionist movement. Illus. (Nov.)