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Crossing to freedom; WNED's ‘William Still Story' highlights Canada's role as safe haven for slaves escaping through the secret routes of the Underground Railroad

When WNED Buffalo/Toronto decided to tell the story of William Still, it was focusing on one of the lesser-known heroes of the Underground Railroad, the movement that ushered as many as 40,000 fugitive slaves to freedom in the mid-1800s through a network of secret routes and safe houses .

Yet "Underground Railroad: The William Still Story" speaks to more than the courage and determination of one man. It reveals Canada's critical role in helping its neighbors achieve freedom.

"It's great to be able to tell a story that has a Canadian angle," said Gordon Henderson, founder of Toronto's 90th Parallel Productions, which produced the documentary in association with WNED Buffalo/Toronto and Rogers Broadcasting. "Many think that when slaves crossed the Mason-Dixon line they were safe, but after the Fugitive Slave Act [of 1850], they weren't safe. Canada then became essential."

The "William Still Story" debuts at 10 p.m. Feb. 6 on WNED-TV and in Public Broadcasting Station markets across the United States. It is being paired with a radio series that begins next week.

"The Underground Railroad on the Niagara Frontier," a six-part radio series, highlights the contributions of Western New York and Southern Ontario.

The radio pieces will begin running Sunday on WNED-FM 94.5 at 2 p.m., continuing each day through Friday. On WNED-AM 970, the series begins Monday at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and repeats each day at those times through Feb. 6.

"The radio component will highlight the extraordinary contributions of individuals and communities including Lewiston and Niagara Falls," said John Grant, WNED's chief program officer.

The $550,000 project was funded in part by Canadian National Railway, Rogers Cable Network, Canada Media Fund and Rogers Documentary Fund.

It marks the first time WNED has paired a radio series with a national television production, said Grant.

>The Still diaries

"When we started reading the diaries of William Still, we discovered one of the best records of the Underground Railroad we could imagine," said Grant. "Some of his stories -- especially him meeting his brother -- give me goose bumps. What are the odds of sitting across the table from a stranger, listening to that stranger tell his story, and then realizing that stranger is your brother?"

Still, an African-American who painstakingly chronicled the passage of hundreds of slaves along the Underground Railroad, did not just keep written records.

He got his hands dirty.

"This is as rich a story as I know," said Henderson, executive producer. "This guy kept on fighting into his old age. He saw injustice and wanted to do something about it. Then he goes and becomes a very wealthy man."

In 1850, cotton was the South's dominant cash crop, and 1.8 million of the 2.5 million slaves in this country -- almost 75 percent -- were involved in its production. At that time, the unofficial border separating slave states from free states followed the Mason-Dixon Line, forming part of the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia (which then was part of Virginia).

By 1860, as many as 100,000 slaves had escaped to freedom using the Underground Railroad to travel north. Philadelphia became a critical passage point along the freedom trail.

Still, who was born in New Jersey, moved to Philadelphia at age 26. He was an ambitious man who taught himself to read and to write. When he died in 1902, the New York Times called him "The Father of the Underground Railroad."

At one point Still is believed to have helped as many as 60 slaves a month to escape from their runaway points in the South, said James Horton, an American Studies and History professor from George Washington University who appears in the film.

The story is told through re-enactments, expert interviews and vintage photographs. Still is portrayed by Toronto actor Dion Johnstone, who had considerable experience on stage at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"There was great worry and gnashing of teeth over what PBS calls 'direct address,' or William Still speaking directly to camera," Henderson explained. He said most PBS documentaries use voiceover.

"I accept the fact that [direct address] can be cheesy, but I felt that Dion Johnstone could pull it off. He's an actor at [the Stratford Shakespeare Festival], and if he can get the cadence of Shakespeare, he should be able to get the cadence of William Still."

Johnstone has spent the last seven seasons at Stratford, playing several "young hero" roles, including Orlando in "As You Like It" and Caliban opposite Christopher Plummer in "The Tempest" in 2010.

>Ancestors' voices

To prepare for his role, Johnstone studied Still's journals. He described the writing as very Shakespearean in terms of imagery and phrasing.

"What he did was to record whom he came in contact with, where they were coming from, their family members, what aliases they were going to take on, and where they were traveling to," said Johnstone by phone from Toronto. "It was very dangerous information to have logged anywhere."

The narrative in the documentary mirrors the original diaries, according to Johnstone.

"Still did not want these stories to be lost," the actor said. "In his mind, the slaves were great heroes who struggled very hard to create the life we have now. It is very important that we remember where we came from."

The commentary of historian Bryan Prince in the film is noteworthy because Prince descended from fugitive slaves who helped found the Buxton Settlement in southwest Ontario. Fifty miles northeast of Detroit, Buxton was once Canada's largest fugitive slave settlement.

"My ancestors were slaves who came to Canada, so I've always had a passion for researching history," said Prince. "When we think of the Underground Railroad, we have the vision of the kindly Quakers helping these poor slaves [and] the torture it must have been to leave familiar surroundings, to leave family members behind."

Prince, 60, is a farmer with a passion for history. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat, and on rainy days heads for a library to do research. His wife, Shannon, has curated the Buxton Museum since 1999.

"It really wasn't until 'Roots' came on television that I was hooked on history and wanted to know my family history," said Prince. "So I went to every gray-haired person I could find and asked them their stories. Over and over people said they did not know. That's when I started going to the library."

Henderson gave credit for the show to director, producer and writer Laine Drewery, and to Peter Twist, whom he hailed as a "wild re-enactor."

"We kick around history," said Henderson. "His house is full of uniforms. His knowledge of history is terrific. His film credit could have been five different things."

"In this day and age of reality and ratings, it's good that PBS and WNED allow you to tell stories like this," said Henderson.

Find more on the Underground Railroad at www.wned.org and pbs.org.

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com