Merlene Davis: UK basketball star Valerie Still recounts slave heritage in book

Former UK star's ancestors included trailblazers, leaders in abolition movement

Herald-Leader columnistJanuary 22, 2012 

  • If you go

    What: Valerie Still will be signing copies of her book, Still Alive on the Underground Railroad.

    When: Noon, Saturday.

    Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington Green.

    Also: Underground Railroad: the William Still Story, a documentary about Valerie Still's great-great granduncle, will air on KET beginning Feb. 6.

More than 150 years before University of Kentucky basketball star Valerie Still and her brother, Art Still, an All-American football standout, were on campus, their ancestors lived and worked in the vicinity as slaves. The information came as a surprise to Valerie Still, the New Jersey native who is the UK women's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. And it enticed her to explore more about her family, which has a rich history in America dating back to the 1700s.

"I have always been very proud of my family, but in the past I tried to emotionally distance myself from its legacy because it includes slavery," Still said last week. "For a long time, I didn't want to admit having any connection to that 'peculiar institution.'"

Had she persisted in that belief, she may never have discovered that in 1807, two of her great-great-granduncles, Peter and Levin Jr., were sold to John Fisher, a brickmaker and builder in Lexington.

The two boys, ages 6 and 8, were sold from a plantation in Maryland to the brickyard owner after their mother, Sidney, successfully escaped and joined her husband, a free man in New Jersey.

Sidney, who later changed her name to Charity to avoid recapture, had taken two daughters with her and had planned to return for the boys, whom she left with their grandmother. An earlier attempt with all four of her children had failed.

For 11 years, the boys carried thousands of bricks near where UK is located, before they were sent to Alabama as part of an inheritance.

"When I discovered this I had chills," Valerie Still said. "On the place where UK sits today, a place where I eventually set records, my ancestors were enslaved."

Though she may be known in Kentucky for her 2,763 points and 1,525 rebounds, "I also have an extremely interesting history with my ancestors being fundamental in the abolishment of slavery," she said.

Valerie Still is writing a series of books, aimed at fourth- to eighth-grade students, depicting her family's history. She will sign copies of the first volume of the series, Still Alive on the Underground Railroad, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Saturday at noon.

Still has been researching and writing the series for a while, she said.

In 2004 she was asked to give a presentation at her 8-year-old son's school during Black History Month. She couldn't find a lot of reading material appropriate for his age group, so she discussed her family's history and the class seemed interested, she said.

About that time her marriage to former UK basketball player Rob Lock, whom she had met and married while playing in Italy, was breaking up and she was working on her master's in African and African American Studies at Ohio State University. The divorce, which was finalized in 2007, was stressful and caused her to doubt her self-worth, she said.

In April 2010, while Still was living in Ohio and completing her doctorate exams, her mother died.

"When she died all of a sudden, I wanted to die," she said. "My world was over. I was a Momma's girl. The worst thing is my mother's death. The divorce was bad enough."

A couple of months later, she and her son, Aaron, now 16, packed up and moved to Kansas, where she has coached girls high school basketball and works with her brother, Dennis Still, at his Ol' School Sports Academy in Overland Park, Kan.

Her brother has become a father figure and the central male role model for her son, she said.

The move helped her regain her footing.

"My mother always quoted Scripture," she said. "I heard her quote Romans: 'All things work for good.' I didn't understand that then, but now I do.

"I've been through some really tough times," she said. "I used to be angry with God, but I know now God is with me. It is not a religion for me, it is a relationship — and my relationship is strong."

Since refocusing on her research, Still has learned her ancestry is filled with interesting characters who succeeded despite their circumstances.

■ Her great-great grandfather, Dr. James Still, "The Black Doctor of the Pines" and brother to Peter and Levin Jr., practiced medicine in the 1800s and became one of the largest landowners in Medford, N.J.

■ In 1871, James Thomas Still, son of Dr. James Still, was one of the first black graduates from Harvard Medical School.

■ Her great-great-granduncle William Still, activist and abolitionist, was instrumental in the success of the Underground Railroad. He kept meticulous records and later published them as part of a memoir in 1872. It is considered the most important resource on the history of the Underground Railroad. A documentary about him, Underground Railroad: the William Still Story, will air on KET in February.

■ Her great-grandaunt Caroline Still, William's daughter, became one of the first black female physicians in America in 1878.

Valerie Still said her family's history isn't black history but American history.

"I hope the series encourages young people to learn about who they are by studying their ancestors," she said. "When I learned about my ancestors I became more self-confident. Regardless of life situations, whether challenging or pleasant, we can use all of our experiences for good."

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

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