New Philadelphia, Ill., was a formerly enslaved man’s vision for an integrated town

By Mark Guarino

September 12, 2021 at 7:00 a.m. EDT

CHICAGO — As a child, Gerald McWorter often listened to his father tell stories about growing up on a farm in New Philadelphia, Ill. But it wasn’t until a family reunion in 2005 that he fully understood the significance of his lineage: Everyone he met that day was in some way affected by the story of his great-great-grandfather, a formerly enslaved man from Kentucky who in 1836 became the first Black person in the United States to plat and register a town.

During Frank McWorter’s time, New Philadelphia thrived as a community where Black and White families worked together as equals long before the Civil War was fought to preserve — or destroy — that possibility.

The revelations have emerged through three decades of archaeological digs, advocacy by local community members, oral histories and family artifacts, letters and research. The momentum was enough to convince Gerald McWorter, 78, that he and other relatives “had an obligation” to “become stewards of a story that is bigger than us.”

Also convinced was Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), who introduced a bill that would designate the site of New Philadelphia a part of the National Park Service. The measure passed the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously and will be brought to the House floor for a vote this fall.

“McWorter’s story is an important part of our Illinois [history] and our nation’s history that is not often told,” LaHood told the panel in April. “It is imperative we enlist sites like New Philadelphia . . . so future generations can understand their important history and the lessons they will provide.”

In a time of harsh partisan strife in Washington and racial unrest nationwide, those lessons can be hard to find. They trace to a man whose story was as expansive and improbable as those of two of his contemporaries who lived within a short drive of each side of New Philadelphia: Abraham Lincoln and Samuel Clemens, who also was known by his pen name, Mark Twain.

Frank McWorter was born into slavery in 1777 and grew up on a Kentucky plantation. His White enslaver, George McWhorter, was also his father. Frank was an entrepreneur of sorts whose father allowed him to earn wages outside his hours of slavery in a cave where he foraged and sold materials used for gunpowder.

By 1817, Frank had saved enough money to buy freedom for his wife, Lucy, who was pregnant with their fifth child. Two years later, he was able to buy his own freedom. Emancipating 15 other family members would follow, a process that lasted through 1857 — three years after the death of Frank, who came to be known as Free Frank — and cost a total of $500,000 in today’s dollars.

“It’s often hard for people to get out of their heads that it would take 40 years to buy your family back from slavery. It’s a really heroic story that captured the imagination,” said Gerald McWorter, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he taught African American studies.

The first person in the McWorter family to actively document Frank’s life was Gerald’s aunt, Thelma McWorter Kirkpatrick Wheaton, who collected family documents, letters and photos as well as interviewed older descendants. Her daughter used that material to write her doctoral dissertation about Frank McWorter, and the University of Kentucky Press published it as a book in 1983.

Frank McWorter’s dream included buying his own land, and he eventually purchased 80 acres, sight unseen, in Pike County, Ill., along the Missouri border. It was thick prairie then, and the McWorters arrived in 1831 to clear it for growing crops and constructing a town. Descendants of McWorter remained in the area until the late 1990s.

New Philadelphia existed for half a century. Named after the eastern metropolis that symbolized brotherly love for all races, it was a prosperous frontier town that had a post office, a school, a store, a blacksmith shop and two shoemakers, presumably to supply footwear for runaway enslaved people who passed through on their way to Canada. The town was home to as many as 29 households, and neighboring farmsteads used its services.

But what distinguished the community was where it was located: just 20 miles from Hannibal, Mo., a bustling river town that served as a major site for auctions of enslaved people. Just over the Mississippi River, African Americans were human chattel and subject to horrific violence, but in New Philadelphia, they freely owned guns, earned good livings and worked the land with their White neighbors.

“It teaches us some things about the development of the western frontier at that time, that there’s complexity there,” said Joe Conover, a former editor of the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper in nearby Quincy, Ill., and an advocate for the federal designation. “It tells you that human beings can get along and survive and make something of themselves despite everything else that is going on around them. It’s a larger story about human existence.”

Like Gerald McWorter’s ancestors, David Iftner’s family also dates back two centuries in the area. His great-great-grandfather Jacob Irick, who was White, had an arrangement with Frank McWorter to hire runaway enslaved people on his large farm so they could earn enough money to head north. Iftner did not learn his family’s story until he was an adult and a cousin discovered the connection.

“We had no idea,” he said. “It’s like a lot of things in our history when things get whitewashed and just disappear.”

The renewed interest in New Philadelphia began in 1996 after a community group formed to enshrine McWorter’s story on a sign at a rest stop along a state highway next to the cemetery where he is buried. Group founder Phil Bradshaw, a farmer and longtime Republican who is White, said that early on, he would receive “nasty notes and nasty comments” from townspeople about the advocacy. Eventually, those subsided.

“We’re telling history that our grandparents knew about. People are looking at this as something positive, as something we can all get behind,” he said.

The community group, the New Philadelphia Association, bought more than 30 acres that Frank McWorter had owned and allowed archaeologists from the University of Illinois and the University of Maryland to dig over several summers to unearth remnants of the town. Although no original buildings remain, the area has walking trails with smartphone-enabled kiosks that tell McWorter’s story.

Iftner and his wife, Kaye, planted an acre of native prairie grasses — milkweed, goldenrod, bee balm — to resemble what the ground looked like before it was plowed. On Monday, the organization will open the site to visitors for an event that will include remarks by members of the McWorter family.

All of their work was impetus for the site being named to the National Register of Historic Places. If Congress grants the site National Park status, the McWorter story will have a platform to travel more widely. Funding would help build a visitor center, and administration for the site would operate out of the Lincoln Home in nearby Springfield, a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service.

Today, the town sits firmly in Trump Country. The former president received nearly 60 percent of the votes in Pike County in the November election. Yet the culture clashes surrounding Confederate monuments and unearthed Black histories stand in opposition to the people here and the work they have done for nearly 30 years, despite their different backgrounds and political loyalties, to tell Frank McWorter’s story.

“I think people are thirsting for something positive. They’re tired of hearing about the unrest between people,” Kaye Iftner said. “People want to live in harmony.”

For Gerald McWorter, the integrated town his great-great-grandfather built gives him hope.

“If New Philadelphia was possible, maybe [racial harmony in] America is possible,” he said.

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