Abolitionist Vigilance: Lessons of Security and Care

Jan 16, 1856: They Fugitives being strongly armed and determined on to gaining their liberty or death, resolutely drew their Pistols (double barrelled) and said they would not be taken_ said that no gentleman would attack persons travelling As they were_ as the leader amongst the Fugitives “pulled back the hammers” of his Pistols, and the two young women_ one with a Pistol & large derk & the other a derk, resolutely showed a disposition to defend themselves which had the effect to intimidate their persuers_ hence they escape_ though not without many other difficulties

Image reads “A Bold Stroke for Freedom”. Description: Escaping slaves, men and women, battling slave catchers. Source: Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872 p. 83.

One morning about the first of November, in 1855, the sleepy, slave-holding neighborhood of Chestertown, Maryland,was doubtless deeply excited on learning that eleven head of slaves, four head of horses, and two carriages were missing… 

[Harriet Shephard’s] rude intellect being considered, she was entitled to a great deal of credit for seizing the horses and carriages belonging to her master, as she did it for the liberation of her children.

Description: Escaping With Master’S Carriages And Horses: Harriet Shephard, And Her Five Children, With Five Other Passengers. Source: ‘The Underground Railroad’ by William Still, 1872.
16th “ To Caroline Gray
” 17th “ To Robt. Scott Cash 2.75, 1 ¾ days board 87¢ $ 3.62
” ” “ Henry Washington ” 2.75, 1 ¾ ” “ 87¢ 3.62
” ” “ Eliza do ” 2.75, 1 ¾ ” “ 87¢ 3.62
” ” “ Jno. Boyer ” 2.75, 1 ¾ ” “ 87¢ 3.62
” ” “ Susan do ” 2 75, 1 ¾ ” “ 87¢ 3.62
” ” “ Anna Wood ” 2.75, 1 ¾ ” “ 87¢ 3.62
” ” “ Caroline Graves 000, 1 ¾ ” “ 87¢ .87
” ” “ Porterage 38, Telegraph 40, med. 75, Carriage 1.00 2.53
” ” “ Messenger to Boat 25, Board of two [pistols?] 75 1.00
” ” “ Hooping Boxes .38
$26 50


These three documents are records from prominent Philadelphia abolitionist William Still, who operated as an agent for the Underground Railroad in the pursuit of freeing the enslaved and ending the industry of enslavement. Still assisted nearly 1,000 fugitives in the 1850s. In 1872 he published his records from this period, where he documented names, physical characteristics, personalities, and stories from those who passed through Philadelphia. They give a vivid picture of the lives lived and stories told through the dangerous and difficult work of the Underground Railroad. The legacy of this important primary source is twofold: we have rigorous authentic documentation of Underground Railroad activities which benefit Still then and historians now, and upon publication, those who were free could use it to try and track down relatives and ancestors. 

William Still was a part of the Vigilance Association of Philadelphia, also known as the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. This underground group aided the intricate network of Underground Railroad stations, conductors, and fundraisers in Philadelphia, while also having a working relationship with other cities such as the Vigilance Association of New York. Together they facilitated the safe passage of enslaved people heading northbound. Some historians claim that without Philadelphia, the eastern route network of the Underground Railroad would not have been as successful.

In my initial research, I was struck by how complex the Underground Railroad and Anti-Slavery work was in Philadelphia. It wasn’t as simple as being for or against slavery. Abolitionism was an identifier with different implications across race, class, economy, and politics. The narrative in Philadelphia is dominated by Quaker conceptualizations of abolitionism, yet this presumption erases the layers of conflict and complexity across multiple coexisting parties. 

In those layers is where I found the Vigilance Committee, the more radical sect of abolitionism led by free Black working-class folks with the assistance of some white allies. This makeup differs from other abolitionist groups such as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), who maintained racist beliefs

Aiding fugitives was dangerous, risky, and illegal work. Therefore the networks developed to serve this purpose are shrouded by mystery. However, Still’s work and earlier documentation shed light on their operations. 

The Vigilance Committee deliberately sought to be a public-facing voice for abolition, while their actual day-to-day operations were held in secrecy. 

The role of the Vigilance Committee was “to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress” (National Enquirer, Aug. 10, 1837). Members paid dues and fundraised via concerts, parties, and church collections. Notably, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a close ally to this work. The Committee operated as a point of contact for fugitives in Philadelphia. Church members screened fugitives to eliminate imposters and spies, boarded folks in private homes, clothed them, gave them medical attention, provided them with legal counsel, and provided any funds or assistance to help them continue their journey. The chart above shows how William Still tracked the distribution of funds, and what it went towards, such as transportation and self-defense. 

“The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia,” by Joseph A. Borome. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 92 (January 1968), 320-351.

The Vigilance Committee was truly a mutual aid effort through and through, and not unlike mutual aid, legal counsel, and autonomous collectives today. I think the further study of this organization could be beneficial to groups doing Abolitionist and Anti-Repression work today. Reviewing meeting minutes offers a glimpse into their organizational structure and methodology, how they raised and distributed funds, and how conflict was resolved. I was surprised to not have heard of the Vigilance Committee until now, given how daring and bold members needed to be in order to have succeeded in what they did. I hope that bringing their stories and legacies back to the surface inspires the new and future generations of abolitionists. 

Copyright 2021 by Malkia Okech. All rights reserved.

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Malkia Okech (she/her) is an abolitionist activist, futurist, and community archaeologist. She seeks to learn from history, act in the present, and imagine a future towards true safety and justice, free of capitalism and white supremacy. Okech is the Associate Producer for Black Spatial Relics, a Curator in the Philadelphia Black arts collective Bad Apple Commune, a Research Associate for Monument Lab, and a Digital Producer at the local creative agency Mighty Engine. For Okech, understanding layers of oppression and resistance in Philadelphia through memory and artifacts is key and can be composited into a guide for liberation.