Still family history was rooted in slavery. Parents Levin and Charity met while enslaved on adjacent plantations in Maryland. After purchasing his freedom, Levin moved to a free black community in NJ, and, soon after, (still enslaved) Charity made her first escape attempt with her 4 children. She and the children were caught and returned to Maryland. A second attempt was successful, and Charity joined her husband although she left her 2 sons behind in the escape. The family renamed themselves, integrated into the locally established Still family, and went on to have 14 more children.
One of these children would grow up to become the “Black Doctor of the Pines,” and the other a father of the Underground Railroad. James began his life as a laborer, but his skill with distilling local plants led to his becoming a self-taught doctor, landowner, and eventually one of the wealthiest men in the area. In 2005 New Jersey purchased its first African American site for historic preservation – James Still’s medical building (sadly, James’s ornate Victorian home was demolished in 1932). The medical building is empty, although there are plans to return the building to its original state.
In the meantime, interpretive panels on site discuss Dr. Still and his legacy. Garden beds of medicinal herbs, an interpretive building, and a nature trail are located on the adjacent site.
Brother William left New Jersey and moved to Philadelphia, where he and wife Letitia became active in the abolition movement. William eventually became head of Underground Railroad operations for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and chairman of its Vigilance Committee. Hundreds of slaves passed through William’s care, and after discovering that one of them was actually his long lost older brother Peter (who had been left behind during his mother’s escape over 40 years before), William made the dangerous decision to keep detailed records of the slaves passing through, in the hopes that this information could be used to reunite families. These notebooks, eventually published as “The Underground Railroad Records” in 1872, are housed in the collection of the Pennsylvania Historical Society and can be accessed digitally through their website.
Still was involved with the ingenious escape of Henry “Box” Brown, who was boxed up in Virginia and mailed out of slavery to Philadelphia (72 hours in transit!). William and Letitia’s home is still standing at 625 S. Delhi Street, and although it’s been extensively remodeled, the front step is probably the original, trod upon hundreds of fugitive slaves, and even Harriet Tubman herself, who conducted along this portion of the railway (and was a known colleague of William). Although historians knew that the Stills lived on the block, its exact location was only recently pinpointed when an advertisement for Letitia’s seamstress business was discovered.
This historic marker shows the location of another of their homes on 12th St.
In addition to visiting sites associated with their lives, today you can visit the graves of the Still brothers. William and Letitia are in Eden Cemetery, Philadelphia.
Not the oldest African American cemetery in the US (as some sources claim), Eden is the oldest owned by African Americans. It opened in 1902 as a cemetery for African Americans, who were excluded from many of the cemeteries of the time (including The Woodlands and Laurel Hill). Bodies from older African American burial grounds and potters fields in the city that had been condemned/undergoing development were moved here (including the remains of civil rights activist Octavius Cato). The oldest relocated burial dates back to 1721. Finding tombstones is hard – there are no markers or maps – but if you want to pay respect to William and Letitia, drive down the main road, around the corner, and turn left at the “Lebanon” sign. Their grave is about 1/2 way down on the right. The cemetery is also the final resting spot of architect Julian Abel and singer Marian Anderson.
You can find James in Jacob’s Chapel Cemetery in Mt. Laurel, NJ. The site is home to one of the earliest African American burial grounds in NJ (Colemantown had one of the largest free black communities in the county), and is also home to an 1858 AME church and the early 19th century Colemantown Meetinghouse. The meetinghouse, moved here from near James’s home in Medford, is one of the oldest black schoolhouses in NJ and was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
James’s stone is the largest in the small cemetery, and is located among numerous Still family stones – some belonging to James’s relatives, and others to the original Stills that gave their name to the runaway slave family back in the 1800’s. Relatives of both Still families can be found in the area.
Although black history has been a historically ignored area of the preservation movement, there are still several sites around Philadelphia with ties to the abolitionist movement:
The Johnson House: A 1768 Quaker Mansion, now home to an Abolitionist and Underground Railroad museum (Germantown)
Belmont Mansion: Beautiful 1745 Palladian Mansion, visited by the founding fathers, and now home to an Underground Railroad Museum (Fairmount Park)
Fair Hills Cemetery: Burial site of Lucretia Mott and other Philadelphia Quakers active in the Abolitionist movement. (Germantown)
Mother Bethel AME Church: Home of America’s oldest African American Methodist Episcopal congregation and museum (Center City) The Richard Allen Museum: Black History, The AME Church, and Victorian Stained Glass
St. George: Richard Allen and Absalom Jones became the first licensed African American Methodist ministers here in 1784, but led a walk-out when the leaders restricted seating for Black congregants. Allen went on to establish the AME church The Colonial (Georgian) Churches of Philadelphia