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Preserving New Jersey’s African-American History

RELEASE: June 1, 2006 – Volume XXXV1, No. 22

 

This past February – fittingly, on the last day of Black History Month – New Jersey’s Green Acres Program purchased the historic eight-acre homestead of Dr. James Still. Known as “The black doctor of the Pines,” Dr. Still’s success and skill with herbal remedies came well before the billion dollar pharmaceuticals industry.

Dr. James Still (1812-1882) knew as a child that he wanted to be a doctor. But as a son of former slaves, the opportunity to go to medical school did not present itself. He saved money from odd jobs to purchase a still, which he used to distill and sell extracts from native plants. He then bought books on anatomy, physiology, botany and the preparation of medicines.

Dr. Still developed his own herbal and botanical remedies, which often proved effective when traditional treatments failed. Dr. Still reportedly even treated skin cancer successfully. People came from miles around to Dr. Still’s practice, which boasted an extensive list of patients of all backgrounds, both black and white.

Dr. Still was also an accomplished writer; his memoir entitled Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still was published in 1877 and is considered classic African-American non-fiction literature. The book’s first-person account of Dr. Still’s childhood, medical practice and personal insights brings to life the African-American experience of the 19th century. From the 1850s until his death, Dr. Still practiced out of a one-story office next to his home in Medford Township. His homestead was pictured in the 1876 Atlas of Burlington County.

Although Dr. Still’s Victorian-style house was demolished in 1932; his office still stands, and was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1995. Despite the historic designations, the 8-acre lot was at risk of being demolished and developed for commercial uses.

Other Still family members were no strangers to success. Dr. Still’s brother, William, was a businessman in Philadelphia and a pioneer conductor of the Underground Railroad. He later published his first hand account with runaway slaves in his book entitled, Underground Railroad. Another brother, Peter, published his personal recollections entitled, The Kidnapped and The Ransomed in 1856. Two of James Still’s sons became medical practitioners, one through traditional botanical remedies, and the other, James Jr., was the third African-American to graduate Harvard Medical School in 1871 with honors.

Many partners came together to make the preservation happen. Medford Township, Burlington County, N.J. Department of State, N.J. Historical Trust, South Jersey Tourism Corporation and the Still Family Society are working in partnership to develop restoration and interpretation strategy to open the site for the public.

In addition to its obvious value as a piece of African-American life in New Jersey in the 1800s, Dr. Still’s office provides an unparalleled setting for education on medical botany, 19th century medicine and life in the Pinelands during this era.

N.J. Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner John Watson said, “The Department is very proud to have been able to preserve this very special place and we will be working diligently to raise the necessary resources to properly honor Dr. James Still’s place in New Jersey history.”

As a former ‘Piney’ myself, I’m looking forward to learning more about this part of New Jersey’s history, as well as the remarkable life and legacy of Dr. James Still.

 

To learn more about Dr. Still, you can visit http://medfordnj.com/history/still.html or http://www.undergroundrr.com/firstfamily.html.

I hope you’ll contact me at info@njconservation.org for more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.

 

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