The Underground Rail Road (1872)

Rare Books is kicking off Black History Month with the latest issue of “Students in the Stacks,” in which student assistant Claire Peterson discusses a work by African American author William Still about the experiences of escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. Stay tuned throughout the semester for more of Claire’s Civil War discoveries!

The title page of William Still’s The Underground Rail Road (1872). (Book shown: E450 .S85 1872)

In The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-Breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others or Witnessed by the Author…  (1872), William Still – abolitionist, businessman, and the youngest of eighteen children – tells the story of fugitive slaves’ escape and liberation. The book is the only first-person account of the Underground Railroad written and self-published by an African American.

The frontispiece portrait of the author, William Still.

The “Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom…” promised in the work’s title are recounted through letters, portraits, and illustrations.

Still’s narratives help the men and women whose stories he tells to cast off all remnants of their former enslavement, not only giving them opportunity to use their newly found voices, but presenting their stories with the compassion and respect that had so long been withheld from them. Here, former slave Robert Brown is depicted in the midst of his dangerous escape across the swollen Potomac at night.

Henry Box Brown, who ingeniously managed to mail himself out of slavery in Richmond, VA and into freedom in Philadelphia, PA.

Romulus Hall, who managed to escape slavery on foot only to die of “lockjaw and mortification” after sustaining wounds on a long and unforgiving journey. To the last, he adamantly maintained, “I am glad I escaped from slavery!” (52).

Still dedicated the work “to the friends of freedom, [and] to heroic fugitives” who either gained or died in pursuit of liberty.

Still’s dedication honored the men and women whose stories he recounted.

Claire Peterson

About Claire Peterson

Claire Peterson is a former student worker in the Rare Books unit.

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