Underground Railroad: The William Still Story

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“It was my good fortune to lend a helping hand to the weary traveler flying from the land of bondage.” – William Still

The compelling story of one of the most important, yet largely unheralded heroes of the Underground Railroad, comes to life in the new documentary Underground Railroad: The William Still Story, airing Monday, February 6, 2012 at 9 p.m. on Eight, Arizona PBS.  The film airs as part of PBS’ Black History Month commemoration. It also explores the major role Canada played in the complex humanitarian enterprise that helped deliver tens of thousands of men, women, and children from bondage.

The first generation of his family born free, abolitionist and historian William Still (1821-1902) was determined to get as many runaways as he could across the U.S. border to Canada. He accepted delivery of transported crates containing human “cargo” and helped smuggle them to “Freedom’s Land.” Still risked everything to keep detailed records of individuals’ stories, eventually compiling them into a book recognized as the most authentic account of the inner workings of the Underground Railroad and the plights of those who used it. 

Underground Railroad: The William Still Story uses these powerful diaries, evocative reenactments, historical perspectives and moving accounts from the day to re-create one of North America’s greatest sagas.  Scenes were shot on "living history" plantations in the South and in locations in Southern Ontario. 

 “William Still is a true American hero who — until now — has not had the tribute he deserves,” said Donald K. Boswell, President and CEO of program co-producer WNED Buffalo/Toronto.  “This ‘starring role’ brings to light Still’s  bravery and legacy and reveals the important role that Canada played in the success of his valiant efforts for his fellow man’s freedom. ”

After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, bounty hunters could legally abduct former slaves living in the so-called free northern states, but under the protection of the British, Canada provided sanctuary for fugitive slaves. While Still’s home base of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was on the front lines of the struggle over slavery, he considered Canada the ultimate destination for the fugitives he was helping liberate.

“I believe history connects best when it is built from a great story,” said Gordon Henderson, founder of 90th Parallel Productions which produced the program in association with WNED Buffalo/Toronto. “There are unforgettable scenes in William Still's extraordinary life —such as meeting his own long-lost brother while working in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery office — that bring to light the significance and impact of his contributions.”

The New York Times called William Still “the father of the Underground Railroad,” but he saw himself as just another soldier for the cause.  

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