As soon as we at Peachtree started making plans to promote Don Tate’s William Still and His Freedom Stories at ALA Midwinter 2020, we booked an event with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s largest archives of historical documents and Philadelphia’s Library of American History. It’s also the location of historical documents about and from William Still, and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to learn more about the little-known, but incredibly important historic figure who stars in Don’s new picture book biography.
During a pause in the conference, a few of us at Peachtree along with Don Tate and some of our industry friends had the pleasure of getting a personal guided tour of William Still’s handwritten records and other significant documents related to his abolition work.
Beth Twiss Houting, Senior Director of Programs and Services, and Melvin Garrison, former head of the Social Studies for the School District of Philadelphia (who helped make African- American history a mandatory part of the Philadelphia curriculum), introduced us to some amazing original documents, including William Still’s own handwritten notebook. Intriguingly, the handwritten journal is labeled “Journal C,” indicating that there might have been “A” and “B” journals, although those were not found.
We actually got to look through the journal and see Still’s own handwriting – an incredible experience. And as Don (carefully) flipped through the pages, he eventually found the passage about Harriet Tubman, which made it into Don’s picture book as the endpapers!
It was fascinating to see that pages in Still’s journal had pen slashes through them, which was probably his way of keeping track of which entries he put in his published book. As a publisher, we couldn’t help but appreciate that even Still was editing his own work to decide what from his notes should be kept for the published book.
We also looked at the published book The Underground Rail Road.
Don, who had reviewed the published book at the Free Library of Philadelphia when he was doing his research, asked why the published version we were looking at was different than the one he reviewed a while back. It turns out that Still had published different formats of his book with different casings and bindings to allow for different price points, making the book available for a wider range of people. So not only was Still an incredible note-taker and editor, but he was also a brilliant book production and marketing strategist!
Still was also a pioneering book publicist. He collected reviews and endorsements of his book from prominent figures, including William Lloyd Garrison, Senator Charles Sumner, and media outlets like the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Nation. He published these reviews and quotes in a “circular” to help market the book. He also hired his own sales force of men and women, Black and white people, to help sell the book.
Everyone who took part in the tour was very grateful not only to get an early introduction to Don’s book, but also to get an introduction to William Still (whom not many of us knew about before). It was such an honor to feel like we were part of the book’s research process, seeing historical artifacts that would eventually make it into William Still and His Freedom Stories. For all of us, being immersed in the history on display at the Historical Society really brought William Still and his work to life.
Introducing Young Readers to William Still: Resources and More
With the help of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, we are now able to use Still’s records to know what the Underground Railroad was like, helping further educate ourselves and future generations. On their website, The Historical Society provides a wealth of resources about William Still and the Underground Railroad, as well as lesson plans on how to include William Still and his work into classroom discussions.
The Historical Society has also been putting together an important digital history project, “Uncovering William Still’s Underground Railroad.” This project weaves new connections between the manuscript journal and the published book of William Still to help provide insight into the experiences of enslaved individuals and families who passed through Philadelphia between 1852 and 1857 as well as the covert networks that aided their escape. The first phase of the project includes an interactive website with tons of useful information about the Underground Railroad.
The project also includes a relationships “social network,” connecting people William Still had written about in his journal with various people those freedom seekers knew or encountered. It includes a map of locations on the Underground Railroad that were described in Still’s journal.
These valuable resources would not have been available without Still’s stories. And without his stories, we might not know as much as we do about freedom seekers who escaped slavery or about the Underground Railroad and its success. William Still showed how important it is to tell stories. And now with Don Tate’s William Still and His Freedom Stories, young readers can learn about the incredible man known as the Father of the Underground Railroad.
Start young readers on their exploration of William Still and the Underground Railroad with Don Tate’s powerful picture book William Still and His Freedom Stories, available November 1st, and be sure to download the free teacher’s guide!