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William Still

William Still

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William Still, one of seventeen children, was born in Burlington County in 1821. His father escaped to New Jersey and was later followed by his wife and children.

Still left New Jersey for Philadelphia in 1844. Three years later he was appointed secretary of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Still was the first black man to join the society and was able to provide first-hand experience of what it was like to be a slave.

Still, who established a profitable coal business in Philadelphia, used his house as one of the stations on the Underground Railroad. Still interviewed the fugitives and kept careful records of each so that family and friends might locate them. According to his records, Still helped 649 slaves receive their freedom.

After John Brown and his insurrection at Harper's Ferry failed in 1859 Still sheltered some of his men and helped them escape capture.

At this time Still began his campaign to end racial discrimination on Philadelphia streetcars. He wrote an account of this campaign in Struggle for the Civil Rights of the Coloured People of Philadelphia in the City Railway Cars (1867). He followed this with The Underground Railroad (1872) and Voting and Laboring (1874).

Still established an orphanage for the children of African-American soldiers and sailors. Other charitable work included the founding of a Mission Sabbath School and working with the Young Men's Christian Association. William Still died in Philadelphia on 14th July, 1902.

William Grant Still

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William Grant Still, (born May 11, 1895, Woodville, Mississippi, U.S.—died December 3, 1978, Los Angeles, California), American composer and conductor and the first African American to conduct a professional symphony orchestra in the United States. Though a prolific composer of operas, ballets, symphonies, and other works, he was best known for his Afro-American Symphony (1931).

Still was brought up by his mother and grandmother in Little Rock, Arkansas, and studied medicine at Wilberforce University, Ohio, before turning to music. He first studied composition at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, then under the conservative George Whitefield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and later under Edgard Varèse during the latter’s most radical avant-garde period. The diversity of Still’s musical education was extended when, in the 1920s, he worked as an arranger for the bandleader Paul Whiteman and for the blues composer W.C. Handy. Early orchestral works included Darker America (1924) and From the Black Belt (1926) for chamber orchestra.

Still’s concern with the position of African Americans in U.S. society is reflected in many of his works, notably the Afro-American Symphony the ballets Sahdji (1930), set in Africa and composed after extensive study of African music, and Lenox Avenue (1937) and the operas The Troubled Island (1938 produced 1949), with a libretto by Langston Hughes, and Highway No. 1, U.S.A. (produced 1963 and 1977). During this time, Still also made history when he conducted (1936) the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 1939 he married, settling in Los Angeles.

Still’s compositions from the mid-1930s show the jazz band as a major influence on his eclectic musical style. He made considerable use of material in the African American style—though rarely borrowing actual melodies—and preferred simple, commercial harmonies and orchestration, the use of which, however, was characterized by the highest professionalism and seriousness of purpose.

Key Facts & Information


  • William Still was born in New Jersey on October 7, 1821.
  • His parents were both former slaves, with his father buying his freedom in 1798 and his mother escaping twice it was only after her second escape that she reunited with her husband.
  • Still was the youngest of eighteen children.
  • Two of Still’s older brothers did not accompany their mother when she reunited with Still’s father.
  • One of his older brothers died at the hands of his enslaver, while the other finally escaped from slavery when he was 50 with the help of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.
  • Growing up, Still had vivid images of the horrors of slavery.
  • His parents instilled in him strong familial values, a strong work ethic, as well as pride and self-determination.
  • Still had little formal education, and what he knew was largely self-taught from working with his father on their farm, or as a woodcutter nearby.
  • Still learned to read and write on his own, largely due to his extensive reading this would later help him in his career.


  • In 1844, Still moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was hired as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1847.
  • He married Letitia George in the same year and had four children: Caroline Matilda, who became one of the first African-American women doctors in the US William, who became a lawyer in Philadelphia Robert, a journalist and print shop owner and Frances, an educator.
  • When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Still was appointed chairman of the Vigilance Committee, which helped and supported fugitive enslaved African-Americans he was an active member of the committee.


  • Between the years 1844 and 1865, Still helped at least 800 slaves escape to freedom.
  • He did this by keeping thorough and detailed records of the enslaved people he helped, including a brief biography, the destination they were heading to, and any aliases they went by.
  • Still made sure to keep these records private and hidden, but knew that they would be important when trying to reunite family members who had been separated under slavery.
  • He also collected letters, arrival memos, and ransom notes of the escapees, compiled into a book titled The Underground Railroads Records, which archived those primary documents.
  • The book was published after the Civil War (in 1872).
  • While in his role as clerk as the Philadelphia “station”, he worked to directed a complex network of abolitionists, sympathizers, and safe houses from his city of Philadelphia to the area now known as Southern Ontario.
  • It was during one of his interviews as a clerk that he realized he was questioning his older brother Peter, who was sharing the same childhood stories that his mother toldhim when she escaped.


  • While continuing his work with the Underground Railroad, Still rose to become a prominent figure in the African-American community, working with other operators in the South.
  • In 1855 he traveled to Canada to observe groups of formerly enslaved people, and wrote a letter in 1859 to the press protesting the racial discrimination he witnessed in Philadelphia and challenging the segregation of the city’s public transit system, which had separate seating for whites and blacks.
  • His efforts paid off in 1865 when the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law to integrate streetcars in that state.
  • During the Civil War, Still operated the post exchange at Camp William Penn, which was where the United States Colored Troops trained.
  • In 1861, he purchased real estate and opened a stove and coal business, eventually opening a coal yard as well.
  • He was named to the Philadelphia Board of Trade and was also a member of the Freedmen’s Aid Commission.
  • Still contributed to the YMCA and other organizations by organizing missions, and oversaw the management of homes for children, orphans, and the elderly.
  • After publishing his book The Underground Railroad Records in 1872, he became known as the “Father of the Underground Railroad”, with his book proving to be a vital source of history.
  • William Still died on July 14, 1902 in Philadelphia.

William Still Worksheets

This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about the William Still across 20 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use William Still worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about William Still who was an African-American abolitionist who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a businessman, and a civil rights activist. He was also the chairman of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and provided help to fugitive slaves by helping them reunite with their families.

Complete List Of Included Worksheets

  • William Still Facts
  • Historical Record-Keepers
  • Still in Popular Culture
  • William Still Wordsearch
  • Vocabulary of the Times
  • Common Misconceptions
  • Commemorative Stamp
  • William Still Crossword
  • Still and Tubman
  • Opinion Piece
  • William Still Acrostic

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William Still (1821-1902)

William Still was born in Burlington County, New Jersey in 1821, as the last of eighteen children of former slaves Levin and Charity Still. By 1844, Still moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he spent the majority of his life and where he was appointed secretary of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Still was the first black man to join the society and the first to hold this position.

Still was also active in the Underground Railroad in the two decades between his arrival in Philadelphia and the end of the Civil War. Still became well known in various circles as a major “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, helping fugitives make their way to Canada and freedom. Still also campaigned for an end to racial discrimination in Philadelphia. In 1859 he organized the effort to end black exclusion from Philadelphia streetcars. This campaign was described in Still’s first publication, Struggle for the Civil Rights of the Coloured People of Philadelphia in the City Railway Cars in 1867.

In 1871 Still became the first anti-slavery activist to document the experiences of fugitive slaves in his book The Underground Railroad, a work which explained the story often in the words of the participants in the effort to escape slavery. The book provided intimate detail on the workings of conductors like himself but it also provided numerous letters and testimonials from fugitive slaves to Still either requesting assistance or thanking him for his efforts. Even today, The Underground Railroad remains a major source for understanding this active and concealed resistance to slavery.

William Still continued to campaign for civil rights in Philadelphia as a researcher, writer, and activist until his death in 1902.

Show title: Underground Railroad: The William Still Story

Video description: Drawing from the diaries he'd secretly kept during his years as the Philadelphia stationmaster, William Still published his definitive book on the Underground Railroad and the freedom seekers who used it. His passion for the cause of freedom was so great that when he died in 1902, The New York Times called him "The Father of the Underground Railroad".

Play Epilogue

Program segment for PBS Learning Media

Play Freedom's Land

Program segment for PBS Learning Media.

Play The Fugitive Slave Act Classroom Segment

Program segment for PBS Learning Media

Play Chief Conductor

Program segment for PBS Learning Media.

Play Sydney Still's Run for Freedom

Program Segment for PBS Learning Media

Play Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was the last attempt by the government in Washington to appease the southern slave states and shut down the Underground Railroad. It required every state and territory in the United States to assist in the return of fugitive slaves and gave slave owners the right to seek them out even in states that had abolished slavery.

Play William Still's Place in History

Drawing from the diaries he'd secretly kept during his years as the Philadelphia stationmaster, William Still published his definitive book on the Underground Railroad and the freedom seekers who used it. His passion for the cause of freedom was so great that when he died in 1902, The New York Times called him "The Father of the Underground Railroad".

Play Slavery and Freedom

As incredible as it sounds today, in the 1850s many Americans believed that slaves were incapable of thinking for themselves and could not survive on their own. They believed that the black man was created by God to serve a white master and found passages in the Bible to prove it. Some slave holders even argued that they were doing their slaves a favor by providing them with food and shelter.

Play Coded Spirituals

Many of the well-known Negro Spirituals popular in the United States during the mid-1800s are much more complex than they first appear. Historians of the Underground Railroad refer to them as "Coded Spirituals". What that means is that the words actually have two meanings one that is immediately apparent and one that's hidden just below the surface.

Play Origin of the name Underground Railroad

Historians haven't been able to pin down how the Underground Railroad got its name. Many believe it was a slave-catcher who coined the term, when the runaway he was chasing seemed to just disappear as though he'd escaped on a mysterious underground rail line. But one thing is certain: the "railroad" that helped runaway slaves flee to the free states had nothing to do with steel rails.

Play Punishment

Slaves who ran away from their masters and were re-captured suffered terrible punishments. A severe beating was the most common form of discipline, usually administered with a bull whip or a wooden paddle. The offender would be hung by the hands or staked to the ground and every slave on the plantation would be forced to watch the whipping to deter them from running away.

Play Underground Railroad: The William Still Story Trailer No Air

Underground Railroad: The William Still Story is the story of a humble Philadelphia clerk who risked his life shepherding runaway slaves to freedom in the tumultuous years leading up to America's Civil War. William Still was the director of a complex network of abolitionists, sympathizers and safe houses that stretched from Philadelphia to what is now Southern Ontario.


In 1918, Still joined the United States Navy to serve in World War I. Between 1919 and 1921, he worked as an arranger for W. C. Handy’s band and later played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s musical, Shuffle Along. Later in the 1920s, Still served as the arranger of Yamekraw, a “Negro Rhapsody” composed by the noted Harlem stride pianist, James P. Johnson. His initial hiring by Paul Whiteman took place in early November 1929.

In the 1930s Still worked as an arranger of popular music, writing for Willard Robison’s Deep River Hour, and Paul Whiteman’s Old Gold Show, both popular NBC Radio broadcasts. In 1936, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra.

In 1934, Still received his first Guggenheim Fellowship he started work on the first of his eight operas, Blue Steel. In 1949 his opera Troubled Island, originally completed in 1939, about Jean Jacques Dessalines and Haiti, was performed by the New York City Opera. It was the first opera by an African American to be performed by a major company.

Still moved to Los Angeles, in the 1930s, where he arranged music for films. These included Pennies from Heaven (the 1936 film starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans) and Lost Horizon (the 1937 film starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Sam Jaffe). For Lost Horizon, he arranged the music of Dimitri Tiomkin. Still was also hired to arrange the music for the 1943 film Stormy Weather, but left the assignment after a few weeks due to artistic disagreements.

In 1955 he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Still’s works were performed internationally by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra.

He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national United States television when A Bayou Legend, completed in 1941, premiered on PBS in June 1981. Additionally, he was the recording manager of the Black Swan Phonograph Company.

History of Wilberforce University: William Still

William Grant Still was born on May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi. After his father passed away when he as a baby, he was raised by his mother and grandmother in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Still enrolled at Wilberforce University in 1911. After, he studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and New England Conservatory of Music. In 1931, Still became the first African American to have a major orchestra play one of his compositions when the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performed Afro-American Symphony. In 1936 Still became the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

Many of Still's compositions melded jazz with traditional orchestral music. Some reflected his interest in African music. A number of his ballets and operas reflect his interest in the African diaspora. His 1930 ballet, Sahdji takes place in central Africa. His acclaimed 1937 ballet, Lenox Avenue, is set in Harlem. His 1949 opera, Troubled Island is about the Haitian Slave Uprising.

Little Known Black History Fact: William Still

Abolitionist and writer William Still served an important role during the Underground Railroad movement. His 1872 book, The Underground Railroad, is reportedly the only first-person account of the tales involving the movement and the shuttling of the enslaved to the North so they could experience freedom.

Still was born free in Burlington County, New Jersey on October 7, 1821. His parents were former slaves who settled in the North and endured several hardships as a result. There was an account that Still helped to free his first slave when he was just a boy, but he came to prominence freeing slaves during his adulthood.

After settling in Philadelphia, Still became one of the city’s most successful businessmen and was attracted to the abolitionist movement. He was initially hired as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. The group formed a Vigilance Committee to help escapees who arrived in Philadelphia and Still was a vital component of the group.

In July 1855, Still and Passmore Williamson helped Jane Johnson and her two sons escape slavery in a nationally covered rescue. Still was also active in civil rights, lobbying heavily to have integrated streetcars in the city. When Black riders were mistreated, Still stood as a champion for their rights and wrote a short narrative about his activism around streetcar ridership.

Using his influence, Still helped to bring the first YMCA for Blacks to the city and helped fund an orphanage, among other notable acts.

Still’s story will be told in part in WGN America’s new drama, Underground, which makes its debut Wednesday night. Still will be played by actor Chris Chalk of Gotham and Lila and Eve fame. The show stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Alano Miller and Christopher Meloni in lead roles.

The first African-American to conduct a major American symphony, Williams Grant Still, is a descendant of the abolitionist.

Biographies William Grant Still, 1895-1978

Known as the "Dean of African-American Composers," William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, where his mother was a high school English teacher. He began to study the violin at age 14 and taught himself to play a number of other instruments, excelling at the cello and oboe. In 1911, Still entered Wilberforce University in Ohio where he gained valuable experience conducting the University band and producing his first attempts at composition and orchestration. Although his abilities as a performer and arranger led to many opportunities for him beyond the concert hall, he was inspired by the career of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to become a composer of concert music and opera. He left Wilberforce University in 1915 and began to work as a freelance performer and arranger for many of the top bands in the Ohio region, eventually developing an association with W.C. Handy for whom Still made his first published arrangement. His work in the world of commercial music lasted throughout his career including film scoring (largely uncredited) while living in Los Angeles during the 1930s and work as an arranger for theatre orchestras and early radio, most notably with Paul Whiteman, Sophie Tucker, Willard Robison and Artie Shaw.

Still's education continued off and on throughout the 1920s with a brief stint at Oberlin College, where he studied theory and counterpoint. He studied composition with George Chadwick at New England Conservatory and privately with experimental composer Edgard Varèse, who became Still's most influential teacher. Varèse was also an advocate for Still, programming his compositions on concerts of the International Composers' Guild, an organization which he helped found in 1921.

William Grant Still's career was comprised of many "firsts". He was the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra in the U.S., the Symphony no. 1 "Afro-American" (1930). It was premiered by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic. The piece's New York premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1935. He also became the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. In the world of opera, his Troubled Island was the first by an African-American to be performed by a major opera company (New York City Opera, 1949) and that same opera was the first by an African-American to be nationally televised.

Although William Grant Still did not write a large quantity of works for solo voice and piano, the quality is very high. Still set many of the great poets of the Harlem Renaissance including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. He also set poetry by his second wife, Verna Arvey, an accomplished writer and pianist who wrote the libretti for most of Still's operas. Perhaps his most ambitious work for voice and piano is the song cycle "Songs of Separation" which sets poetry by Dunbar, Hughes, Arna Bontemps and Haitian poet Philipps Thoby-Marcelin (in French). In the cycle, Still sets five poems of diverse authorship with a common literary theme and constructs a unified musical framework around the poems. As in his famous Symphony no. 1, Still utilizes the harmonic and rhythmic language of jazz and blues to portray the sense of "otherness" inherent in the poetry.

William Grant Still: The Founder of American Music

If you’re a fan of classical music and American history, Symphony No. 5 “Western Hemisphere” by William Grant Still serves as an excellent starting point for studying America’s unique cultural footprint. Contained within its four movements are a heroic but soulful three-note melody, which graces its way across a plethora of musical textures before finally arriving at a glorious finale. Indeed, with its gospel-inspired theme and colorful orchestration reminiscent of a misty morning sunrise over the Appalachians, the “Western Hemisphere” symphony is a work that never ceases to remind the average American of where they were born. This composition is one of many that exemplifies America’s cultural standard for creativity. Indeed, what we know as “American” music would likely not have existed had it not been for the famed yet underappreciated composer, William Grant Still.

Before the influential styles of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, William Grant Still was cleverly designing the framework by which certain kinds of music would be conceived as “American”. Prior to Still, the idea of a uniquely “American” sound seemed a bizarre concept to most listeners. In addition to being heavily overshadowed by European composers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the sound of American composers was almost entirely influenced by already-existing styles. This is not to say that the United States did not produce excellent composers during this era. Composers such as Francis Hopkinson (b. 1737-1791) who uncoincidentally was a signer of the Declaration of Independence wrote masterful pieces of music that stand as trademarks of American culture (his piece, The Toast, a brief but ingenious composition dedicated to President George Washington, is worth at least a few listens). However, despite the obvious identity of Hopkinson as a proud American, his style was understandably similar to the European classical composers of his time, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At that point in history, it seemed that the unique stylistic qualities of American music had not yet been discovered.

The evolution of music in the United States came to an important cross-road when American society confronted its most heinous institution: slavery. It is a well-documented fact within musicological circles that the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States gave birth to an immense paradigm shift in popular culture. The industries most affected by this were the musical arts. Since Spiritual music played an integral role in providing enslaved people in the South with hope, these same communities brought those musical skill sets to the performance industry upon their emancipation–sparking the creation of new genres such as ragtime and gospel music. The use of Western tonality mixed with African rhythms passed down from many generations led to the birth of various musical styles–meaning that American music came to be defined as a “creole” forged by the clashing of simultaneously opposing yet cooperative cultural influences during the Reconstruction Era.

Three decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, William Grant Still was born in 1895. Raised during the tail-end of Reconstruction, Still’s life can be viewed as a bridge between the culturally divisive era following the Civil War and the widespread pop music industry of the early 1900’s. Still’s uncle frequently brought classical music records to the young boy’s house when he visited–inadvertently facilitating Still’s love for the symphony orchestra. When he was a young man, Still began studying science at Wilberforce University, but soon transferred to Oberlin Conservatory of Music where he focused on composition. Soon after his studies, Still spent the early days of his career writing for W.C. Handy and Fletcher Henderson. But his identity as a classical composer wouldn’t be cemented until the premiere of his first major orchestral work: Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”.

The title of this work spoke volumes about Still’s personal values and beliefs. In the era that Still’s first symphony was published, the words “African” and “American” seemed diametrically opposed in the minds of many individuals–both for those who wanted to perpetuate racist beliefs and for those who were its victims. Yet, for Still, it was never quite that simple. As stated by the famed composer himself:

“For me, there is no White or Black music, there is only music by individual men that is important if it attempts to dignify all men, not just a particular race.” *

Based on his own words, it seems as though Still’s personal values about how racial identity should not take precedence over artistry would not bode well in today’s society where tribalism and identity politics reign supreme. Because of his staunch dedication to a universal, post-racial identity, one could say that William Grant Still proved himself to be a great American in addition to being a great composer.

Appropriately enough, Still’s subtle, yet profound Americanism shines through in many of his later compositions. Take his work, Summerland originally written as part of a suite for solo piano. This piece, reminiscent of a sunny day in the great American countryside, offers a pleasant detour from Still’s artistic reflections on America’s cultural identity and explores the natural beauty of the nation itself. Venturing over dramatic phrases and colorful harmonies, Summerland has more in common with Lili Boulanger’s piano works than that of commonly compared-to George Gershwin.

William Grant Still’s honorable artistic homage to the complexities of American identity paved the way for future composers of the American tradition. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Copland’s Rodeo, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings all owe a degree of their artistic integrity to the foundation put forth by Still. In the same way a sociology student must study Tocqueville to understand American society, or a philosophy student must study Edmund Burke to discover the theoretical underpinnings of American politics, there is no greater composer for the study of American musician than William Grant Still. If given the chance, one should immediately listen to the fifth symphony “Western Hemisphere”. Few compositions have paid greater respect to the exceptional values of Western Civilization than Still’s masterpiece of a symphony.

*This quote was first documented in Judith Anne Still’s collection of biographical essays on her father. Still, Judith Anne. William Grant Still: A Voice High-Sounding. The Master-Player Library, 2003

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The featured image is a photograph of William Grant Still taken on March 12, 1949 by Carl Van Vechten, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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