Every once in a while, I come across something that really strikes a chord with me and reminds me how important words are: how they give life and a voice to those who might be lost without their power. This time around, it was a PBS special on William Still, widely known as the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” I’d never heard of him until I saw this show. Based in Philadelphia, he ran one of the most successful of the underground railroad lines, often helping 60 slaves a month find their way to freedom in the Northern states and later, in Canada.
At one point during his years as a “conductor,” William decided to start interviewing everyone he was helping and keeping a record of their stories. He took their names and brief histories, and then sent them on their way. All together, he commemorated 649 brave souls, faithfully taking down their identities, family backgrounds, and hopes for freedom.
In the show, an actor dips a pen in ink and writes down his notes in a small book by candlelight. Keeping a log of all this information was very risky at the time and every night, William would hide his notes in a crypt in a nearby cemetery. Later he published everything he had gathered in a book called Underground Rail Road Records.
Think of the courage it took, not just to help all the desperate people who came to him, but also to make sure they didn’t just disappear into a void forever. William was blessed with the knowledge of how to read and write, and because of this he was able to capture for posterity a fragment of a moment in time. He used his words to give people who might have been forgotten by history names and stories. How powerful words are: they heal, they rescue, they remember. We are alchemists: we turn silence into art. Write on!