The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia operated between 1837 and 1852; it was the secret auxiliary of the Vigilant Association. The Vigilant Association was a group formed by the ardent abolitionist, Robert Purvis, in August 1837 to publicly promote antislavery ideology and "to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress." The Vigilant Committee's purpose was to appoint offices, raise revenue, and have resources readily available to assist runaway slaves while they stayed in or passed through Philadelphia. The organization dissolved in 1852. That same year, a new Vigilance Committee was created during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, with Robert Purvis as the head of the General Committee and William Still as the chairman.
Through the examination of the Vigilant Association’s activities, students will explore Pennsylvania's role in the Underground Railroad. The lessons within this unit are designed to have students understand the Underground Railroad as an intricate system powered by personal motivation and determination for freedom, with support and aid from individuals in the larger, particularly free black, communities. The Vigilant Committee records provide details of the kinds of services and resources this committee made available to fugitive slaves; these services included legal aid, medical expenses, transportation costs, etc. The William Still journal and the Vigilance Committee expenditure reports allow students to develop a profile of the fugitive slave seeking aid in Philadelphia. The compelling documentation of the names, ages, physical descriptions, treatment, personal motivations, skills, and the details of the physical and emotional journeys of fugitive slaves on Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad provide rich content for the discussion of slavery and escape. These resources also reveal another aspect of the Underground Railroad, the financial cost of caring.