The Selling of the Underground Railroad

Stephen G. Hall highlights the work of the abolitionist William Still. Still collected stories and genealogical accounts from people he encountered migrating north in order to escape slavery. Still protected these accounts through the 1850s, because he hoped they might be used to re-united families and because he knew the discovery of these stories could endanger himself and the people he had assisted. He published the stories after the end of the Civil War, and, according to Hall, the accounts had a profound impact both on the perception of Blacks and on the way slavery was remembered.

William Still began his abolitionist activism in 1844, first working  as a janitor and then as a clerical assistant for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. He gradually moved up the ranks, eventually working directly to assist escapees. His book, “The Underground Railroad,” first appeared in print in 1872. In addition to stories gathered from escaped people, the book also documented the work done by many abolitionists. Its publication meant that the authority to collect, recount, and interpret the history of slavery and abolition was firmly held by black people. The stories were personal and often brutal, serving as powerful counter-narratives to the rise of a nostalgic false memory of pre-Civil War America. The book played a crucial role in preserving first hand accounts of slavery and freedom.

 

Adapted from The selling of the Underground Railroad by Francis Mohammed

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