The remarkable and inspiring story of William Still, an unknown abolitionist who dedicated his life to managing a critical section of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia—the free state directly north of the Mason-Dixon Line—helping hundreds of people escape from slavery.
Born free in 1821 to two parents who had been enslaved, William Still was drawn to antislavery work from a young age. Hired as a clerk at the Anti-Slavery office in Philadelphia after teaching himself to read and write, he began directly assisting enslaved people who were crossing over from the South into freedom. Andrew Diemer captures the full range and accomplishments of Still’s life, from his resistance to Fugitive Slave Laws and his relationship with John Brown before the war, to his long career fighting for citizenship rights and desegregation until the early twentieth century.
Despite Still’s disappearance from history books, during his lifetime he was known as “the Father of the Underground Railroad.” Working alongside Harriet Tubman and others at the center of the struggle for Black freedom, Still helped to lay the groundwork for long-lasting activism in the Black community, insisting that the success of their efforts lay not in the work of a few charismatic leaders, but in the cultivation of extensive grassroots networks. Through meticulous research and engaging writing, Vigilance establishes William Still in his rightful place in American history as a major figure of the abolitionist movement.
About the Author
ANDREW DIEMER is an associate professor at Towson University. He earned his PhD from Temple University and is author of The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863, published by the University of Georgia Press in 2016. He lives in Philadelphia.
"Compelling...With meticulous care and a jaw-dropping amount of research, Diemer fluently charts Still’s course through the internecine rivalries of reform circles, his relationships with luminaries like Harriet Tubman and John Brown, his network of contacts in slaveholding states, and his trips to Canada in search of safe settlement for those traveling along the Underground Railroad...Vigilance is a moving portrait of one’s man life, but not only his; Diemer weaves in the stories of many other figures...whose neglected histories deserve attention and care. Still’s archive is, as he intended, a vibrant legacy, an essential reminder that freedom is often won rather than granted. Diemer’s book, meanwhile, is a tribute to the record keepers." —Catherine Clinton, The New York Times
"Aside from his efforts helping fugitive slaves, [William] Still was a prominent black leader before and after the Civil War. He was also a businessman and a missionary for black self-help. He assisted Harriet Tubman and kept company with Frederick Douglass. He was an early crusader for civil rights...Vigilance...retrieves an important piece of American history...fulfill[ing] the purpose that Mr. Diemer lays out: to remedy Still’s 'erasure' from historical memory." —Roger Lowenstein, Wall Street Journal
"The fascinating life of William Still is an essential key to understanding the Underground Railroad and the many, many enslaved people who were its engine. Andrew Diemer tells Still’s tale through deep research and vivid storytelling, bringing to life a too often overlooked champion of Black freedom. William Still’s hard-fought, lifelong commitment to justice timelessly models the best of our American ideals." —Martha S. Jones, author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All
"With his deep knowledge of the volatile borderlands between the free and slave states, Andrew Diemer has both brought to life an unsung hero of the long civil rights struggle and brought into sharp focus the secret workings of the Underground Railroad. William Still's stirring story is rich with meanings for our own time—dramatizing as it does the elusiveness and fragility of freedom, and the need for tireless vigilance in its defense." —Elizabeth R. Varon, author of Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War
"A deeply researched life of a Black Philadelphian who, using his considerable organizational skills, pieced together much of the escape route for enslaved people seeking their freedom....A welcome addition to the literature of abolitionism, spotlighting an important American." —Kirkus