Two Giants of the Underground Railroad

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Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center

As readers of this column know well, Kennett Square was a “hotbed of abolitionism” and a major thoroughfare of the Underground Railroad.  Kennett, however, was neither the starting point nor the terminal of that great metaphoric means of transportation.  For many of the freedom-seekers passing through Kennett Square, two pivotal  figures were Thomas Garrett of Wilmington, sending his charges north; and William Still (to the right) in Philadelphia, who welcomed them to the city where American freedom was born.  Still, the son of an escaped slave mother, became the secretary of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society.  In that position he helped move fugitives to places farther north and of greater safety.  In addition, he gleaned information from these refugees, to help them reconnect to possible family who had escaped on the same “railway.”

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The collaboration of these two lasted over many years and made the “Eastern Line” of the UGRR perhaps the most successful in the country.  They communicated with each other often, with letters that used coded phrases to disguise their purpose, often referring to the fugitives as “cargo.”  

Thomas, living in a slave state and having, in 1848, been arrested, tried, found guilty, and fined, may not have kept Still’s letters, as they would be a danger to the UGRR if discovered.  If he did keep them, their whereabouts is unknown.  William, though in a free state, nonetheless took the precaution to bury them and his interview notes until the Civil War was over.  Those notes and letters formed the basis of  his 1872 publication, The Underground Railroad, the first account of this great saga and the only one written by an African-American of the time.

Perhaps Still’s most extraordinary experience among his fugitive interviews was meeting a man in 1850, recently escaped from the Deep South.  The man had been sold away from his family as a child and hoped to find some living relatives.  Listening to the details the man knew of his family, William suddenly realized he was listening to his “own dear brother whom I had never seen…. I could see in the face of my newfound brother the likeness of my mother” (Still, p. 4).  Later William was able to introduce his brother Peter to their aged mother.

In 2001, this scene was powerfully captured in the musical drama, Stand by the River, presented at Chester County Historical Society.  The play, written by Mark and Joanna Sutton-Smith, celebrated the life and work of William Still, and it featured a descendant, Winnie Still Davis, who played the mother of William and Peter Still.  And in the audience of one its performance was a young woman, Megan Garrett Bauer, a direct descendant of Thomas Garrett.  After the performance, those proud descendants met one another.