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The History of The Still Family
One of South Jersey’s earliest families honors its legacy
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Photos by David Michael Howarth

Every summer for the past 150 years, the streets of downtown Lawnside have filled with descendants of one of the town’s first settlers. Heartbreaking stories about bigotry and cruelty, as well as uplifting tales about the power of love and yearning for freedom, come to life at the Still Family reunion.

On a day devoted to spoken and written accounts that have been passed down through the generations, it’s impossible not to feel your place in history, says Donna Young, a member of the Still Family Historical Committee, which organizes the event recognized as the oldest and longest running African-American family reunion in the nation.

“I grew up knowing that a Guinean prince was my ancestor,” she says. “I knew being a Still was a responsibility. It meant something to us, and it means something to a lot of people.”

Donna Young

These reunions, dating back to the 1870s, have taken on a life of their own. In recent years they have drawn hundreds of people with ties to the family, however tenuous, from near and far. For those old enough to remember, the 114th reunion stands out. That was the year “National Geographic” documented the day’s events, featuring pictures and the family history in a 1984 cover story on the Underground Railroad.

The time Dark & Lovely, a haircare product company, sponsored the event was another memorable year. This happened in 1995, thanks to Kith Ann Johnson, a Still family descendent who was the company’s model. As Johnson recalls, the national attention was an amazing chance to reach people who might not have heard about her family’s inspiring stories.

Last year’s 150th reunion was a turning point. In sheer numbers, a record-breaking 500 people – including today’s most prominent names – attended. Besides Johnson, former WNBA player Valerie Still returned from her current home in Ohio and used the occasion to launch STILL Java, a socially-conscious coffee company. Hollywood writer and producer Kristi Korzec also returned to introduce her large, extended family to her boyfriend, Taye Diggs – yes, that Taye Diggs.

There were historic reenactments and tons of food, including barbecue and family recipes for collard greens and sweet potato pie. There was music and a prayer service. And after years of attempting to organize a Still family song, they managed to finally pull it off. Same for a family line dance.

“The energy level was so high last year,” recalls Reggie Still, a family committee member. “Valerie seemed to be everywhere all at once. It was Taye Diggs’ first reunion, and he had a big smile from start to finish.”

On the bittersweet side, it marked a passing. Every generation has its story tellers. For this one, it was Gloria Still, an educator and motivational speaker who wrote several family histories and frequently spoke to groups of children. Gloria passed away in April at 83. She was predeceased by her husband and others from that generation who were a driving force for decades behind the reunions and efforts to research family history, says Kelly Still, one of Gloria’s 7 children.

And now, amid a pandemic, committee members say there’s no doubt that a 151st reunion will take place next month, but it’s going to look very different.

“For me, the 150th reunion really marked a goal and an achievement,” says Kelly. “We took over from our parents after losing so many people from their generation. In this changeover stage, the challenge is to figure out how we keep up the same energy level.”

“With mom’s passing this Spring, and her service as a virtual video funeral, I want to have a memorial service for her, but I’m a bit lost as I think a lot of people are today,” he adds. “I believe we have a challenge ahead of us to figure out a new way to give meaning to reunion. Will we actually gather? Will people ever have reunions again of that size and nature?”

As the committee debates these questions, a reunion is planned for August 9, whether it’s by Zoom or a smaller-than-usual live-streamed event. In the meantime, the committee is continuing the work of past generations with online genealogical research. Organizing the family tree, they’re finding out, is not always straight forward.

“We’re fielding lots of questions from people everywhere trying to tie themselves to the Still family,” says Reggie. “But a lot of dates are wrong and names incorrect in the old Census records.”

As they chart the future path, though, the past tells them that scaled-back reunions can be just as poignant.

“In the early years, it was just at my house before it grew and grew and grew,” recalls Reggie. “It doesn’t have to be super big to be meaningful.”

 

When history has its eyes on you

Vicky Still, portraying her ancestor Jane Johnston

“As a Still, you learn from family stories,” says Kelly Still, 59, a member of the Still Family Historical Committee. “The key to living a good life was to be able to look back and say ‘I did what I was here to do.’”

Levin and Charity Still, both former slaves, are at the heart of many of these stories, most recently compiled by Kelly’s mother Gloria in “The Still Family Journey To Freedom.” Although Levin was able to buy his freedom, he was unable to do so for his wife and 4 children. Charity managed to escape with two of the couple’s girls and reunite with Levin in the Pinelands. It pained her to have to leave two sons behind.

Charity and Levin had 14 more children. William, the youngest, is best known in history as the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” The famous abolitionist helped the vast majority of former slaves who made it to Philadelphia and worked closely with Harriet Tubman planning escapes and arrivals. He was recently portrayed in the movie “Harriet” by Leslie Odom Jr.

Among the hundreds who William helped, he famously reunited his family with his own brother Peter, one of the two siblings Charity had to leave behind during her flight to freedom. With William’s help, Peter bought freedom for his wife and children.
Another brother, James, was a self-taught herbalist who was known as “The Black Doctor of the Pines.” His patients were white and black, rich and poor, and came from as far away as Boston and New York for treatments.

All three brothers wrote firsthand accounts of their lives. Gloria also wrote a biography on Charity Still, among other family histories.
For Kith Ann Johnson, another Still family descendent, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg.

“When I walk the streets of Lawnside, I feel I can hear voices whispering through the trees,” she says. “Hundreds of years of Stills have fertilized this earth. The spirit of Stills runs through the trees.”

July 2020
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