Life in 19th Century Black Philadelphia Classroom Activity

By Aslaku Berhanu

Summary and Objectives:  
Most of the William Still letters concern ordinary family lives with updates about school, work, money, religion, travels, relationships, illnesses, and deaths.  The principal correspondents are William Still and Letitia Still; their children, William Wilberforce, Ellen Frances, Caroline, and Caroline's husband, Edward Wiley; as well as cousins and friends.  This classroom activity is designed to help students understand aspects of United States history by learning about black family life and relationships in 19th-century Philadelphia.  Middle school students will learn to use primary sources and connect them to their studies of African American history.
Classroom activity 1
1. Although William Still did not have much formal education, he wrote a great deal.  Do you believe from this letter that he was successful as a writer?  Does he have the ability to express himself in writing?
2. Considering the time period when this letter was written, why do you think Still and his family discussed everything in letters, including money matters, news, religion, schedules, school matters, and affection?
3. William Still wrote, "Each one of us should carefully keep all the letters that thus passes between us."  What does he mean by this?  What benefits do you think might come from saving family letters?
4. How much money does William Still send to Willie and what does he say Carrie should do with it?
5. What does William Still expect of Ella during her stay with Mrs. Peck?
Classroom activity 2
1. What subject is Carrie having difficulty with? What advice does her father give? How does this show his confidence in his daughter?
2. Does William Still seem like a caring father? Use examples to show why or why not.
3. African Americans are often depicted in history as not possessing education, industry, or sufficient livelihoods following the period of slavery. In this letter, what conclusions can be made about the Still family's economic status?
4. In this letter, William Still writes that young people get carried away with clothing, pleasure, music, etc. What does he advise Carrie to aim for?
5. Still writes to his daughter that $1,281 was raised for the “suffrage question.” To what does this refer?
Classroom activity 3
1. William Still is answering Caroline's letter where she said she was "puzzled."  He tells her to have patience, be calm, and not worry.  What does William Still advise his daughter to concentrate on?  Use evidence from the letter.
2. What did William Still believe should be the purpose of reading?
3. William Still tells Caroline he may have thrown his money away educating his son, Will, and his daughter, Ella.  Why does he write this?  What would he like them to do?  What does he say interests Ella?  Use examples from the letter.
4. How does William Still describe the social circle that Ella is involved in?
5. How much money does William Still enclose to Carrie?
Classroom activity 4
1. Edward Wiley worked as an agent for William Still and travelled about the country selling his book. What is the title of the book? Use the Links to related historical sites and other resources on the William Still site to answer the question.
2. While he had book agents, William Still was quite savvy in the advertisement and distribution of his book.  What clues does he give in the letter that shows his understanding of potential clientele?
3. Was Edward successful in selling William Still’s book? Provide evidence from the letter to support your answer.
4. With whom does William Still have an interview?
5. How many copies of the book has Edward sold since he has been in Baltimore?
Classroom activity 5
1. In this letter, Carrie, who was a medical doctor, states that she doesn't thinks the man to whom she is writing would cook dinner or bathe children so she might practice her profession.  What does Caroline believe a relationship should be between a husband and wife?  Support your answer with evidence from the letter.
2. Carrie writes that she had dinner with her cousin, Dr. James Still.  Why did her cousin cook the dinner and set the table himself?
3. What does Carrie mean when she says that Dr. James Still is “lord and master” of his household?
4. How does Carrie describe Dr. James Still’s relationship with his wife?  Does she approve?
Classroom activity 6
1. What reasons did Edward give for not taking "things mildly" and how are those reasons connected to a "man's duty"?
2. What does Edward say he requested from William Still in a previous letter and what reasons does he give for the request?
3. Why does Edward want to "work very hard" and "earn more money"?
4. What happened to the book that William Still had previously sent to Edward?
Classroom activity 7
1. How does William Still describe the condition of the family and neighbors?
2. What was one of the treatments taken by sick family members?
3. What major event is coming up for Caddy?
4. Was religion important to William Still?  Explain your answer with evidence from the letter.
5. Noting the year of this letter, use the timeline (The Life and Times of William Still) on the William Still site to answer the following question: What major local and national events occurred that year which might have had an impact on Still and his family?
Classroom activity 8
1. In this letter why is Ellie away from home?
2. What is wrong with the house Ellie lives in?
3. What subject is Ellie having difficulty with?
4. Does Ellie seem like a studious person? Why or why not?
Classroom activity 9
1. What does Carrie ask Edward to consider in making the decision to become a preacher?
2. Of the family members mentioned in the letter, which one seems the most supportive of him becoming a preacher?
3. What are Carrie’s feelings about Edward's desire to become a minister? Explain your answer with evidence from the letter.
4. What is Carrie’s relationship to Edward?
Classroom activity 10
1. Carrie tells her husband, Edward, she is "disappointed" that their plans to be reformers have not been successful. What caused this? Use examples from the letter.
2. What does Carrie mean that she was disappointed when she found out she was just "building air castles?"
3. What does Carrie say is her daily prayer?  Why?
4. What does Carrie believe is one of the great Christian duties?
5. Carrie describes taking care of "the domestic affairs" in a house of their own. What does this mean? How does this passage show the roles of women in her time?
6. What is Carrie’s "only fear" with regard to her being an effective writer?  Why?
Classroom activity 11
1. William Wilberforce Still, writes to, Carrie, in her last year of medical school.  Will initially suggests that the South would be a good place for Carrie to open a medical practice but he has a "second thought" about this.  What was Will's "second thought" on this matter?
2. Will says he is down South "enlightening his race." What does this mean? What kind of work is Will doing?
3. He tells his sister that most of the people in the South do the same kind of work.  What do they do?  What does he say is his "exercise?"
4. What would he like to have down there with him?  Why?
5. "Remember me to," was a common nineteenth century expression.  What is Will asking Carrie to do?  What would we say in present day usage?
Classroom activity 12
1. William Still earned his fortunes from several different business endeavors. Of those opportunities, list the ones mentioned in this letter. Also, discuss how his success was achieved through dedication to work.
2. Some of William Still's letters were written to his son-in-law, Edward Wiley, his daughter Caroline's husband, who worked as an agent for him selling Still's book, "The Underground Railroad," in Newark, NJ, Pittsburgh, PA, and Baltimore, MD.  William Still himself was quite savvy in the advertisement and distribution of his writing. What clues does he give in the letter that shows his understanding of potential clientele and other avenues of selling his book?
3. Noting the year of this letter, use the timeline on the William Still site to answer the following question: What major events occurred that year which might have had an impact on Still and his family?
Classroom activity 13
1. What does Carrie say regarding how she feels about Edward?
2. Carrie wants Edward to come to Philadelphia to live.  Why do you think she writes this?  Who does she say will help him find work?
3. What is Carrie's job?  What kind of school did she tell Edward she started?
4. When does Carrie say she will tell her parents about her and Edward’s “renewal of engagement”?
Classroom activity 14
1.  What does Carrie say is wrong with the baby?
2.  Who went to the Old Folks Home and why didn’t Carrie go with them?
3.  When and by whom was The Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored Persons founded? How were William and Caroline Still involved in the institute? Use the People and Places section of the William Still site to answer this question.
4.  What train will Carrie be taking and why did she choose that particular one?
5.  What does Carrie think Edward is keeping from her?