Remembering Peter Still
There is a historical marker on Pine Street in Florence commemorating a building where Dred Scott lived and worked as a slave in the 1820s. Scott of course gained much notoriety when he attempted to purchase his own freedom in 1846, an event that culminated in the landmark case Dred Scott v. Sandford in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that people of African descent could not be American citizens. When Scott lived in Florence, he was owned by Peter Blow. It was Blow’s children who paid some of Scott’s legal dues in his attempt to sue for his freedom.
The story of Scott’s struggle to gain his freedom is significant because of the legal precedent it established. But there was another slave living in the Shoals area who was able to buy his freedom who isn’t mentioned in the pantheon of the region’s important historical figures. The story of Peter Still provides a bleak glimpse into the hardships endured by our nation’s enslaved people. His story is both inspiring and heartbreaking and deserves to be added to our region’s historical narrative.
Peter Still was born in Maryland in 1801. His father purchased his own freedom a few years after Peter’s birth and moved to New Jersey after devising an escape plan for his wife and four children. Their first attempt was unsuccessful, and Peter’s mother and three siblings were apprehended and returned to Maryland. The second attempt proved successful for Peter’s mother and both of his sisters, who reunited with Peter’s father in New Jersey. Peter remained in Maryland with his older brother Levin for a few more years before they were both sold to an owner in Kentucky. Peter and Levin lived in Kentucky for 13 years, working in a brickyard, a tobacco factory, and as a house servant before being sold to an owner in Alabama. Separated at an early age from his parents and siblings, Peter Still found himself entrapped by the cruelty of the slavery system that wrenched families apart and made it next to impossible to keep family intact.
Peter lived on a plantation near Bainbridge, Alabama, several miles east of the city of Tuscumbia on the south side of the Tennessee River. In 1825, he married a slave named Lavinia from another plantation. The marriage produced eleven children, seven of whom died in infancy and another who drowned in his teenage years. It was during this part of his life that Still, like John Henry Rapier and many other slaves, was hired out for a number of different tasks. Still had a great ability to complete a variety of different jobs and is said to have impressed the local white businessmen in Tuscumbia. He was hired out to a bookseller in Tuscumbia, a sympathetic man named Allen Pollock who also allowed Still to “hire his time”: that is, once Peter satisfied his hours with the bookseller, he was allowed to hire himself out to others and to keep the money he subsequently earned. This practice was common in Kentucky and Tennessee, and even Maryland and parts of Virginia, but it was against the law in Alabama. Pollock and Still let on that Pollock was keeping all the profits from the arrangement.
Peter Still was able to make some money this way. When his work contract with Pollock had ended, he entered into a similar contract with an immigrant named Joseph Friedman. Still believed Friedman to be sympathetic towards slaves, and thus requested that his master transfer him to work for Friedman.
Still entered into a risky agreement with Friedman. Originally unsure whether he could trust this man, he eventually revealed his plans to buy his own freedom and Friedman promised to help. The plan was for Friedman to offer Still’s master $500 to buy Still from him. Still would then work for Friedman to pay off the money, whereupon Friedman would grant Peter Still his freedom.
The plan didn’t work as well as expected at first. Still’s master didn’t want to sell Peter. Several years went by before Still’s master agreed to sell him, which he finally did in 1849. By this time, Peter Still had saved $200, which he transferred to Friedman. He then worked for Friedman for another fifteen months until the remaining balance was paid off, and Friedman—true to his word—gave him a receipt and a certificate of freedom.
Peter Still left Alabama and headed to Philadelphia, where he believed he might be able to locate his parents. He was directed to go to the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee to look for records of his parents. While at the office, Peter talked with one of the clerks at the office and told him his story. The clerk revealed that his name was William Still, younger brother to Peter. William informed Peter that their father had passed away, but that their mother was still alive in New Jersey.
Reuniting with his family in the North was bittersweet, however, because his wife and three children still lived in Alabama. Peter initially planned to earn enough money to buy their freedom. Realizing that this may never happen, he began to plan for their escape. He enlisted the help of a white abolitionist named Seth Concklin who had helped other slaves to escape and who agreed to go to Alabama and return with Peter’s wife and children, charging Still only the cost of his expenses.
Concklin succeeded in leaving Alabama with Still’s wife and children, and they made their way down the Tennessee River in a small rowboat. Travel was extremely difficult and dangerous, but they proceeded down the Tennessee, up the Ohio and into the Wabash River that separated Indiana from Illinois. Concklin and Peter’s family then abandoned the boat and started out over land. They stopped at homes of sympathetic whites and free blacks, making their way along the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, near Vincennes, Indiana they were captured. Fugitive slave catchers apprehended Concklin and Peter Still’s wife and children. Needing no warrant, the group was bound and loaded into a wagon headed for the city jail.
This incident illustrates the omnipotence of the slave system. Traveling in a free state, Concklin and his escapees were apprehended merely on suspicion of being escaped slaves. No warrant existed in the state of Indiana for their arrest, yet they were arrested anyway. After their arrest, the federal marshal located in Evansville, Indiana sent out telegraphs with descriptions of the apprehended to cities in the south. A reply came from Florence, and the owner of Still’s family, who was offering $400 for the return of the slaves and $600 for the capture of Concklin, made his way to Indiana. The federal marshal only then got a court order for the detention of the slaves and Concklin. Even in free states, the civil rights of African-Americans were routinely denied. The profits made by returning escaped slaves to their owners, or by selling freedmen to slave buyers, made the concept of freedom seem impossible to many slaves and free blacks.
The slave owner, a man named McKiernan, made his way back to Alabama with Lavinia and her children, while Conklin’s body was found in the Ohio river, hands and feet bound, and skull fractured. He allegedly had tried to escape.
Still was dismayed but determined to be reunited with his wife and children. In 1851, Peter wrote to an attorney friend of his living in Tuscumbia, who asked McKiernan what his price for Lavinia and the children was. McKiernan’s asking price was $5,000, probably $2,000 more than he could have received if he’d decided to sell them to another slave buyer. Still went on a tour to solicit aid. For two years, Still traveled throughout the north soliciting aid from sympathetic abolitionists, meeting some of the foremost proponents of abolition. He met with Harriet Beecher Stowe in Andover, Massachusetts and William Lloyd Garrison in Boston. He met with Horace Greeley in New York.
In October of 1854, Still had reached his goal of $5,000. Still enlisted the aid of his friend John Simpson, a Florence businessman to help arrange the sale. There was not enough money to secure the sale of a recently born grandson, however. McKiernan requested an additional $200 for the child, a sum that the family could not afford. The remaining family members, Lavinia and her two sons and daughter, proceeded north without him.
Kate Pickard wrote a biography of Peter Still that was published in 1856. She was a teacher at the Female Academy in Tuscumbia, Alabama. In it, she recounts Peter’s life through a version that he curated to her and most people he encountered. His mother, he told people, was a free woman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Still purchased a ten acre farm in New Jersey and lived there until his death in 1868.
The story of Still’s life is fascinating, and it provides us an occasion to reflect on not just the hardships endured by slaves under the system of slavery, but the hardships endured after gaining their freedom. For the fortunate few slaves able to purchase their freedom, an entire legislative system operated to undermine their efforts. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that officials in northern states that prohibited slavery had to cooperate with the return of escaped slaves to their owners in southern states. Officials who did not cooperate with the law were subject to a large fine, as was any person suspected of helping an escaped slaved. Because slaves had no legal rights, no trial could be held on their behalf to determine whether they were an escaped slave or a freedman. Many free blacks living in northern states were thus kidnapped into slavery (see Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave). Even though slavery was instituted only in southern states in 1850, its reach was nationwide.
Still’s story also highlights another important and tragic facet of slavery: the breaking up of the family. Born in Maryland on the east coast, Peter’s family escaped north to New Jersey, while he and his brother were sold west to an owner in Kentucky. From there, Still was sold to an owner further south in Alabama before buying his freedom and returning north to Philadelphia. In so doing, he left his own family behind in Alabama. In order to be reunited with his wife and children, Peter Still was forced to purchase them out of slavery at the over-inflated price of $5,000. To compare, that’s $150,000 today. Peter’s son was forced to leave his own baby son behind when he went north, because at the time of his emancipation, he didn’t have the money to buy him from his former master.
The story of Peter Still can teach us much about how the system of slavery oppressed even black Americans who had purchased or received their freedom. Peter Still himself managed to accumulate enough wealth to purchase his own freedom and his family’s as well. That’s no small feat for a man born as property, sold several times, and denied rights we all enjoy today. Peter Still should be regarded amongst the famous historical figures of our region for his incredible life story. It is important that stories such as these, of remarkable perseverance in the face of unfathomable odds, do not get overlooked. It is also important that we remember slavery as a system that compromised the freedom of black Americans whether they were free or enslaved, and whether they were residing in the South or in the North, as Peter Still demonstrates in his amazing struggle to gain his freedom—and to regain his family.
Originally published by Project Say Something, History & Race in Florence, AL, 2016, All rights reserved.
Johnson, Kenneth R. “Peter Still, the Colbert County, Alabama, Slave Wo Bought His Freedom: A Slave Family’s Struggle For Freedom.” The Journal of Muscle Shoals History. Vol 6, 1978.
Pickard, Kate E.R. “The Kidnapped and the Ransomed.” Syracuse: William T. Hamilton, 1856.
Toplin, Robert Brent. “Peter Still Versus the Peculiar Institution.” Civil War History Vol 13 no. 4: 340-349.
Photo Credit: http://www.pbs.org/black-culture/shows/list/underground-railroad/stories-freedom/peter-stills-story/