Once I met up with the group, I was almost immediately glad I had come. I was greeted by a Black woman, not someone dressed as a character in colonial gear. The tour she gave was conversational and didn’t seem rehearsed. Within minutes of starting to walk along the cobblestone streets of the city’s historic district, I’d become enthralled with the complicated history that was hidden behind the neighborhood’s boutique shops and high-end restaurants. The city’s Underground Railroad points were as tucked away as they could be. Some plaques and markers were stuck into the ground or located in the basements of buildings; if you didn’t know where to look, the average person would simply walk past them. My tour guide didn’t hold back when discussing the city’s dark history, but she also had a wealth of stories that ended with triumphs.
But then, when she told a story about enslaved peoples escaping and heading to Philadelphia with the help of abolitionist William Still, I stopped dead in my tracks. “Was William Still from Philly?” I asked.
As soon as I heard the name Still, I instantly thought of my cousin Shonnie, who we jokingly call the family historian. For years, she’d told her friends that the rapper Method Man was her cousin, and she had also often told me that we were related to the Still family, a large well-known Black family who lived near us in New Jersey, where I grew up. It’s quite possible that many Black families in the area are related to that family. While the Method Man bit was a tall tale for street cred, the connection to the Still family was more plausible. But it wasn’t something to which I’d previously given much thought.