Likenesses of Liberty and Resistance in William Still’s The Underground Railroad

Learn how this book uses portraiture and biography to put human faces on the struggle for freedom from slavery.

By Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The Underground Rail Road [prospectus] (1873?) by William StillSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 1872, an extraordinary book brought together the stories of some 650 individuals who had escaped bondage and made their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad.  

It remains the most comprehensive firsthand record of the formidable courage, intelligence, and resourcefulness demonstrated by freedom-seekers in situations of extreme difficulty and danger. 

Several of the book’s illustrators were abolitionists, as was author William Still (1821–1902). Here, he is shown removing the lid from the box in which Henry Brown mailed himself from Richmond to Philadelphia in 1849. Through inspiring stories and images, Still hoped to advance the cause of full citizenship for African Americans.

Death of Romulus Hall (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Still gathered the firsthand accounts published in The Underground Railroad through his work as secretary of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. In the years before the Civil War, Still had recorded the circumstances of virtually every formerly enslaved individual who passed through Philadelphia on the road to emancipation.

This illustration depicts Still’s interview with Romulus Hall, whose harrowing escape had left him terminally ill. On his death bed, Hall expressed no regret for the fateful action he had taken, assuring Still, “I am glad I have escaped slavery!” 

William Still (1872) by John SartainSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Still helped to assure readers of the seriousness and reliability of his account by publishing this dignified portrait of himself as the frontispiece of The Underground Railroad. The print’s rich, velvety tones were created by John Sartain, an ardent abolitionist and the preeminent mezzotint artist in the United States.

Charity Still Twice Escaped from Slavery (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Still included many other portraits to personalize the narrative accounts. This engraving represents the author’s mother, Charity Still (c. 1775–1857), who had raised several children in bondage before William was born. Like other enslaved parents, she had made the heart-wrenching decision to leave some family members behind when she fled to freedom.

Following an initial failed attempt, she escaped to New Jersey with two daughters, leaving her two sons on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Peter Still, The Kidnapped and Ransomed (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Charity Still’s young sons Peter (1801–1868) and Levin Jr. (1799–1831) were immediately sold and spent the next decades passing from one enslaver to another in Kentucky and Alabama. In 1850, Peter managed to purchase his liberty. Hopeful of reuniting with his family, he sought assistance from the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society—only to discover that his interviewer was his own brother, William Still. Their joyous reconnection encouraged William Still to keep careful records of his interviews in the hope of reuniting other families.

Ambrotype of Elisa Greenwell with handwritten note (early 1860s) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Throughout The Underground Railroad, Still emphasized the accuracy of his account. He stressed the authenticity of the engraved portraits by specifying that they were based on “photographs from life.” The original photographs would have resembled this ambrotype of Elisa Greenwell, a self-emancipated freedwoman residing in Philadelphia in 1859. 

Sitting for a photograph was an important act of self-assertion for free African Americans—a means of laying claim to individuality and personhood. However, the engravings in The Underground Railroad now provide the only surviving likenesses of many freedom-seekers, as the original photographs were one of a kind and are now lost.

A Good Likeness of Sancho, a Negro (1807) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The dignified portraits published in The Underground Railroad reversed a long history of using verbal and visual portraiture of African Americans to oppress them.

This 1807 fugitive slave newspaper advertisement includes a detailed written description and a silhouette portrait of a man named Sancho who had fled a plantation in the South.

Anti-slavery societies used such newspaper advertisements to locate and assist fleeing individuals.  

Lear Green Escaping in a Chest (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

This page from The Underground Railroad illustrates the miraculous 1850 escape of Lear Green (1839–1860) from Baltimore. A local newspaper published a physical description of Green to aid in her capture, but she avoided detection during the eighteen-hour steamer journey to Philadelphia by concealing herself in a sailor’s chest.

William Still often used photography to commemorate and document remarkable stories such as Green’s. Upon her arrival at the Anti-Slavery Society, he arranged for her to be photographed emerging from the chest and used it as the basis for this engraving. 

William and Ellen Craft (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Another way freedom-seekers evaded detection was by radically altering their appearance. In 1848, Ellen Craft (1826–1891) and her husband William (1824 –1900) devised a plan to travel by train and steamship from Macon, Georgia, to Philadelphia. 

Having inherited the facial features and pale skin of her father, a plantation owner who enslaved her mother, Ellen masqueraded as a white male slaveholder while her husband posed as her enslaved servant. 

Ellen had acquired sewing skills as a house servant to her father’s daughter—her half-sister—and she used this expertise to create the men’s clothing that served as her disguise. 

Maria Weems Escaping as Jo Wright (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

William Still recorded the stories and portraits of other women who dressed as men to avoid suspicion while traveling alone. Ann Maria Weems (c. 1840 – after 1863) waited several years for the chance to flee the Maryland farm where she was closely surveilled. 

Her opportunity finally came in 1855. Dressed in a boy’s cap, bow tie, and jacket, the teenager took the reins of a horse-drawn carriage and drove to Philadelphia with a white male accomplice. Upon her arrival, William Still had her photographed in the masculine attire that had disguised her identity.

Jane Johnson (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Jane Johnson (1814–1872) liberated herself and her two young sons in full view of their enslaver, Col. John Hill Wheeler (1806–1882) of North Carolina. While passing through Pennsylvania, a free state that did not recognize slavery, Johnson smuggled word to William Still about her desire to be free.

Rescue of Jane Johnson and her Children (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In response to Johnson’s message, Still and fellow abolitionist Passmore Williamson (1822–1895) rushed to the docks and boarded a steamer that was about to leave with Johnson and her children still in Wheeler’s custody. 

While Williamson argued for Johnson’s right to freedom, a group of Black dockworkers stood by, ready to restrain Wheeler. Meanwhile, William Still hurried Johnson and her children off the ship. Although Williamson knew nothing of their secret destination, he was later jailed for refusing to reveal Johnson’s whereabouts.

Jane Johnson (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Risking her newfound freedom, Johnson made a surprise appearance in court to testify on behalf of Williamson and the dockworkers. Accompanied by abolitionist women including Lucretia Mott, she impressed one reporter with the “lady-like air, propriety of language, and timidity of manner that predisposes the audiences in her favour.” Following the trial, Johnson settled in Boston, where she provided aid to others seeking freedom.

Samuel Green Sentenced to the Penitentiary for Ten Years for Having a Copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in His House (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Many of the conductors on the Underground Railroad were free African Americans who jeopardized their liberty to help others. After buying his own freedom in 1833, the farmer and lay minister Samuel Green (c. 1802–1877) provided aid and shelter to Harriet Tubman and others fleeing Maryland’s Eastern Shore. 

When authorities searched his home and found a copy of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he was charged and convicted of possessing “a certain abolition pamphlet. . . calculated to create discontent amongst the colored population.” After serving five years in prison for this offense, Green became an abolitionist lecturer.

Samuel D. Burris, Conductor, Officers of the Road (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Samuel D. Burris (1813–1863) was born free in Delaware, a state with strict laws against aiding those fleeing bondage. African Americans convicted of providing such assistance were fined, imprisoned, and sold into slavery for seven years. Undaunted, Burris became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading many people out of Delaware to freedom in Pennsylvania. In 1847, he was found guilty of assisting fugitives from slavery and imprisoned for fourteen months.

Members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society rescued him from bondage by covertly purchasing his freedom at auction. After moving to California in 1852, Burris raised funds to educate, house, and feed formerly enslaved individuals.

Hon. Abram Galloway, Secreted in a Vessel Loaded with Turpentine (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Abraham Galloway (1837–1870) told William Still that the injustice of “toiling month after month the year round to support his master and not himself” drove him to seek freedom by persuading a ship captain to smuggle him out of North Carolina. Aware that turpentine was burned on northbound vessels to smoke out stowaways, Galloway covered his head and chest with oil cloth. The Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia photographed Galloway and kept the oil cloth as evidence of his dangerous escape.

Come and Join Us Brothers. (1863-1865) by P.S. Duval & Son Lith.Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

During the Civil War, Galloway's familiarity with the terrain of North Carolina enabled him to serve as a Union spy, passing intelligence to General Benjamin Butler (1818–1893). He also recruited free and enslaved African Americans to enlist in the Union’s newly formed regiments of Black troops, such as those represented in this 1863 recruitment poster.

Hon. Abram Galloway, Secreted in a Vessel Loaded with Turpentine (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

After the war, Galloway became an outspoken advocate for legal and social equality for African Americans as well as voting rights for women. In 1864, he met with President Abraham Lincoln to advocate for Black suffrage. As Galloway put it, “If the Negro knows how to use the cartridge box, he knows how to use the ballot box.” Disregarding the deferential behavior demanded by white supremacists and defying threats by the Ku Klux Klan, Galloway served as a senator in the North Carolina General Assembly of 1868–69.

Mrs. Francis sic E. W. Harper (1872) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) was born free in Baltimore, Maryland, and educated at a school established by her abolitionist uncle. She published her first volume of poetry at the age of twenty-one and later contributed poems to anti-slavery newspapers. At the invitation of abolitionist societies, she toured the country lecturing on women’s rights and temperance. 

In 1866, Harper gave a speech at the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York City, asserting that African American women faced the double burden of racism and sexism and must be included in the fight for equality.

William Still (1872) by John SartainSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

William Still understood the power of portraiture to animate the verbal accounts of people who had resisted enslavement and broken free from the chains of bondage. The engravings in The Underground Railroad put human faces on feats of courage and resilience that might otherwise have seemed superhuman. Through his copiously illustrated book, Still countered debasing white supremacist stereotypes with authentic likenesses of liberty and resistance.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps