Biography of Caroline Still Anderson

Caroline Still Anderson

by Aslaku Berhanu

Dr. Caroline Still Anderson (1848—1919) was born the first of four children to William and Letitia Still of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With her personal determination, tenacity of mind and commitment to the welfare of her race, she would demonstrate early in her life all the qualities that characterized her father, William Still, who sought to improve the social and political conditions of black people and assisted in the liberation of many enslaved Africans in America. William Still, described as being “second only to Harriet Tubman in underground railroad operations”, was an active and prominent abolitionist in Philadelphia who spent nearly all of his adult life as a businessman, author, and philanthropist in the service of African American liberation and advancement (Quarles 40).
The educational and spiritual development of his children was of great significance to William Still. Although he was self-educated for the most part, he made every attempt to inform his children about the advantages of a good education and to make them aware of the privilege they enjoyed by having access to schooling. He often expressed this sentiment in his letters to them. In a letter to Caroline dated February 1, 1876, William Still wrote, “I would advise you to give more anxiety and consideration to the all important knowledge and studies, which will [ripen?] your mind and strengthen your purpose…”.
Having lived a life rich with experience, Still possessed a great deal of personal insight with which to inspire Caroline toward her own successes. He often shared with her his various business engagements, successes, and plans. In his March 5, 1868 letter to Caroline, William Still described his business: “… sales are more than double what they were this time last year, and I have no fears if my success continues my yard will be decidedly the leading one on yar Washington Avenue.”

Further, in his letter of August 13, 1867, Still revealed to Caroline his intentions of writing a book on the Underground Railroad five years prior to its publication. This would prove to be his most famous contribution as an abolitionist and philanthropist. He stated, “As I am going to write the History of the U.G. R. R. I must do a good deal of reading and thinking in order to write well. I may commence my book this fall some time.” William Still utilized the records he kept during his years as an abolitionist, to write his 1872 book, The Underground Railroad, which remains a seminal and unparalleled text on the subject. It is a remarkable work known for its stories of escaping slaves told in their own words. More importantly, in this work Still emphasized the agency and genius of the enslaved.

To William Still’s delight, Caroline demonstrated a sincere interest in education. William Still saw a spirit of excellence in her that very closely resembled his own. With unwavering dedication, he would write letter after letter to Caroline, extending moral, spiritual and financial support to assist her in her most difficult affairs. He never once reprimanded her for being prodigal. It can be presumed that in his correspondence with Caroline, William Still attempted to guide her ambitions towards Christian work. It is also evident that he tried to cement in her consciousness a sense of responsibility and accountability to her race. Regarding his own work in the service of African Americans, he wrote to Caroline on August 13, 1867, “Possessing desires so ardent as I did to see our people moving in the direction of self-elevation &c, in order to aid the good cause, I was putting forth efforts far beyond my strength.”

Caroline Still seemed to have gained a vision for her life through her father.  As he might have hoped, she later mirrored her father’s work in the service of African Americans. She utilized her educational gifts to become a medical professional for black families as well as a social reformer in black Philadelphian society.

Nineteenth-century Philadelphia was not a welcoming environment for most blacks. In addition to violence, there was local legislation put in place to halt the implementation of black citizenry and to curtail the growing black migration (of the formerly enslaved) from the South into the city. Despite this hostile setting, some black families prospered socially and economically. As a member of this elite community, Caroline Still was protected from much of the ill treatment that many blacks encountered during this period. She would remain aware of her privileges and take full advantage of the opportunities they offered.

Caroline Still received her schooling at a number of institutions that served the educational needs of black children. They included Mrs. Henry Gordon's private school, the Friends Raspberry Alley School, and the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University). In 1864 at the age of fifteen, Caroline Still entered Oberlin College in Ohio. She graduated in 1868, becoming the youngest graduate and only black woman in a class of forty-five students. During the commencement ceremonies at Oberlin, she was asked to preside over the college’s Ladies Literary Society, an honor never before bestowed upon a black student. After graduating from Oberlin College she moved back to Philadelphia to teach.

William Still played an active role in the education of his daughter, paying close attention to the obstacles and successes she encountered while searching for her niche in college. William Still had the greatest influence on her studies, commanding her to display a high degree of perseverance and persistence when it came to her studies. His degree of commitment to this cause was truly extraordinary, especially considering the different and unequal gender roles and social lives led by men and women of the time. One letter in particular, dated April 30, 1866, bespeaks Still’s confidence in Caroline’s abilities and capacity to succeed. He stated:

You seem to be worried about your Mathematical studies. ‘Sphere’ or no sphere, I want you to work at it & master it.… I admit it is hard, yet, remember everything that is particularly valuable is not gained except by exertion. That you have the capacity to succeed fairly in this study I do not doubt.... The idea of having to turn back is not pleasant to contemplate—yet not to be thorough is still more to be dreaded.… The great majority of our young people are carried away with dress & show, love pleasure, music & light studies—but  I hope you will go in for solid worth. Aim for a high moral character, superior knowledge & a marked love for justice and right. If I were you I would make very strenuous efforts before I would be turned back....

As there are no extended biographical writings on Caroline’s life, her letters to her father, her first husband, Edward Wiley, and other family members and friends reveal who she was as an African American woman living in the late nineteenth century. They also allow for a better look at her personality, commitments, hopes, vision, and ideals with regard to marriage, motherhood, and Christian work. Her expressions on marriage highlight a desire for equity in the household which would allow for improvements in other areas of her life. Observing her cousin Dr. James Still taking part in domestic affairs gave cause for her to reflect on qualities she most desired in a relationship where equal shares of work were distributed. In her May 28, 1878 letter, Caroline wrote that if a husband committed to even a fourth of the work that Dr. James Still contributed, it “would be delightful and at the same time the wife retaining an independence which would not give another to suppose she stood somewhat in awe of her better half.”

Caroline Still and Edward Wiley met at Oberlin College. Wiley, from Alabama, was Caroline’s first husband. The two were married on December 28, 1869. The wedding ceremony was attended by a great number of prominent men and women in the abolitionist movement and the well-to-do among Philadelphian society folk. They had two children, William (who experienced some sickness as a child) and Letitia. During their marriage, Wiley spent a great deal of time apart from Caroline traveling and selling William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad (1872). In her letter of June 18, 1873, writing to her first husband, Caroline seemed to be displeased that the life she envisioned with him as “reformers” had yet to be realized. As such, it formed in her the longing for the time and space conducive to personal development. Explaining her lamentation to Edward, she wrote “I am tired of being so situated as to accomplish so little either for myself or anybody else.” Although little is known about Caroline’s first husband, Edward Wiley, what can be ascertained from his letters is that he was a religious man who possibly sought to become a minister. Furthermore, he considered it a man’s duty to provide shelter and sustenance for a wife and children. Working as an agent for his father-in-law, Edward Wiley was underpaid and could not perform his duties as a father and husband to the degree that he desired. Amidst these issues, he grappled with his ever-deteriorating health. Wiley died on March 22, 1874 from an unknown illness.

The death of her husband may have influenced Caroline Still Wiley’s decision to enroll in medical school. Although her letters do not precisely state her reason for entry, the number of illnesses and deaths of others close to her might also have contributed to her decision. Often, health would be a central theme discussed in the letters. A few would begin or end with an account of the sickness and suffering endured by family members and friends. An example of the notices Caroline Still received appears in the following letter, dated March 6, 1876, from her father:

Our little Willie is not very well. Nor is your mother quite up to her usual degree of health -She and Willie both took some gold castor oil last evening. Indeed we have a great deal of sickness in the city. Mrs. Sayers is very sick so is her oldest Bro, and his wife and child, and only two or three weeks past her Bro. buried his oldest boy -now Joe White’s child is lying dead. So the hand of affliction is heavily upon the family - But if I was to continue I could go from house to house and give you quite a sad picture but will here withhold.… 

Also, her close relationship with cousin Dr. James Still, a physician and among the first Black graduates from Harvard University, might further explain Caroline’s aspirations for a medical career.

Educational Strivings, Medicine

Caroline Still Wiley Anderson is most readily recognized as being one of the first African American female doctors in Pennsylvania. In regards to the marginalized status of black women in medicine, Darlene Clark Hine states, “If white women, black men, and poor whites, as many scholars argue, were outsiders in medicine, then black women, belonging as they did to two subordinate groups, surely inhabited the most distant perimeters of the profession” (107). In spite of this, Caroline Still Wiley began her medical studies in 1875 at Howard University while at the same time teaching music, drawing, and elocution there. The following year she returned to Philadelphia to be near her family. She later enrolled in the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where in 1878 she received her medical degree. She continued with an internship at Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1879. She initially was denied entry into the New England Hospital due to her race, but soon after was admitted as a result of a unanimous vote. She later became City District Physician in Philadelphia. Never ceasing to offer some kind of inspiration to his daughter, William Still sought to teach her about the power of conviction and the honor of hard work. On March 7th, 1879, Still mailed to Caroline copies of the Christian Recorder which included an article entitled “Dr. Tyng and his church organization.” He commands, “Dont [sic] fail to read it carefully. It shows how much may be accomplished by a single individual when in dead earnest.”

Educator and Community Leader

In 1880, Caroline Still Wiley married Matthew Anderson, a Doctor of Divinity and pastor of Berean Presbyterian Church, which provided medical, financial and educational services to the black community. Caroline Anderson ran a dispensary and was instrumental in the management and development of the activities and services offered at the Berean Church. Writing in 1899, in The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois noted that the Berean Church “… conducts a successful Building and Loan Association, a kindergarten, a medical dispensary and a seaside home, beside the numerous church societies. Probably no church in the city, except the Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion, is doing so much for the social betterment of the Negro.” (216-17). Along with the Church, Matthew Anderson also founded the Berean Manual Training and Industrial School. As a mission of the church, Matthew Anderson founded the Berean Manual Training and Industrial School. Here, Caroline Anderson taught hygiene, physiology, and public speaking, and also served as the assistant principal for over thirty years.

Beyond working with her husband, Caroline Anderson participated in many civic and educational activities. This extensive involvement included being president of the Berean Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a member of the board of the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People of Philadelphia and co-organizer of the first Colored Young Women’s Christian Association in Philadelphia.

Dr. Caroline Anderson was appointed treasurer of the Woman’s Medical College Alumnae Association in 1888, and was a member of the Women’s Medical Society. She remained active in the medical profession by engaging in research and presenting papers at medical conventions. She was a practicing physician until her death at the age of 70 in 1919.

For her prominence as a physician, educator, and community worker, many of Anderson’s contemporaries regarded her as a key figure in black life. She received acclamation from prominent individuals like Charlotte Forten, who once stated that Anderson was “bright and interesting” (Forten 533). Others like Monroe Alpheus Majors, who was the first black physician to pass the California state boards, praised her exceptional contributions stating that Anderson “is able as a scholar, teacher, lecturer and champion race advocate” (324). While Dr. Caroline Anderson was highly regarded by many in the black community, it was Matthew Anderson who perhaps held her in the greatest esteem. It seemed that much of the desires that she expressed in her letters to her late husband Edward Wiley regarding her expectation of a fulfilling marriage and social life were realized in her partnership with Matthew Anderson. Caroline had three daughters with him: Helen, Maude and Margaret. In summing up her character and commitment to the service of the race, Dr. Matthew Anderson asserted:

I cannot find words sufficiently expressive of her value to me in this work. For over thirty years [Caroline] has been my chief inspiration and unfailing support. When I would become weak and think of giving up the work because of the discouraging aspect she was always able to infuse in me new courage and zeal to go forward. Like myself, she was by birth and training peculiarly fitted for this work …. A burning zeal to assist in improving the condition of her race in every way, fitted her to be my companion in this work (16-17). 

Caroline Still Anderson was a prominent African American woman in nineteenth-century Philadelphia. She was a gifted and tenacious scholar and professional, who perhaps received the greatest support from her father, William Still. Although at times she struggled in marriage and motherhood, she remained committed to both. Perhaps her main reason for pursuing a medical degree was to tend to the health care needs of black people in a time when such needs were most blatantly neglected. The example provided by her father, William Still, may account for how and why Dr. Caroline Still Anderson was so driven to be of service.


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____. Letter to Fielding. 28 May 1878. William Still Collection. Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.
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____. Letter to Caddy. 13 August 1867. William Still Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.
____. Letter to Caddy. 1 February 1876. William Still Collection. Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.
____. Letter to Caddy. 6 March 1876. William Still Collection. Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.
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____. Letter to Carrie. 30 April 1866. William Still Collection. Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.
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