New Philadelphia: Family Legacy, National History

2/24/2023 cbw

By Jacob Friefeld

It was 1839 and Frank and Lucy McWorter were getting married for the second time. The wedding was a reaffirmation of their love and a recommitment to all they’d built together. They had come to Illinois with four of their children and built a farm of golden wheat fields and towering stalks of corn.

Though there was plenty of symbolism in their renewed vows, the McWorters remarried for a more pragmatic reason — they had been enslaved in Kentucky when they first committed to each other, but such marriages were rarely respected by U. S. courts.

They had still been enslaved when they started their family, but Frank quickly began to plot their way to freedom. Frank’s owner and father, George McWhorter, trusted Frank to manage his farm and gave him leeway to earn money doing extra work. So, Frank learned how to mine and manufacture his own saltpeter, a necessary component in gunpowder. He used the money he earned selling saltpeter to buy freedom for him and his family.

He began freeing his family in 1817. By this time Lucy and Frank were raising Judah, Frank Jr., Sarah, and Solomon, but Frank first bought Lucy’s freedom. She was pregnant at the time, so not only did he free Lucy, but his purchase also ensured that their son, Squire, would be born free. In 1819, he bought his own freedom, becoming Free Frank, and later changed his name to Frank McWorter — dropping the “h” from his former enslaver’s last name.

A bust showing what Frank McWorter might have looked like, sculpted by his great-great granddaughter Shirley McWorter Moss. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

Frank and Lucy, along with several children they had managed to free, moved west to Illinois in 1830 to the land that would become their farm in Pike County. He traded his saltpeter operation for Frank Jr.’s freedom after Junior had fled his enslavement to Canada. Frank made trips back to Kentucky to purchase the freedom of each of his three remaining enslaved children and at least one grandchild. On each trip, Frank McWorter had to make the gut-wrenching decision of which child he would free and which he would leave behind to endure slavery. The McWorters spent $14,000 to free their family. Adjusted for inflation, that is nearly $500,000 in 2023.

Frank McWorter began his farm with 160 acres and eventually increased those holdings to over 500 acres. Along with his corn and wheat, he grew oats and raised cattle, hogs, and horses. In 1836, Frank divided forty-two acres of his land into town lots and founded the town of New Philadelphia. The town, the first officially founded by African Americans, prospered with both Black and white residents and formed part of a larger rural community of farmers. The town’s very existence as a biracial community in a state with repressive Black Codes on the books until 1865 was a defiant statement against racial inequality. New Philadelphia was an audacious project, a prelude to Black communities like Nicodemus, Kansas; DeWitty, Nebraska; Blackdom, New Mexico; and Boley, Oklahoma, founded in the West after the Civil War.

The location of New Philadelphia, in west-central Illinois. (Google Maps)

In December 2022, New Philadelphia became the nation’s newest national historic site. The designation is an acknowledgement of the legacy of New Philadelphia, built on the foundation of Frank and Lucy McWorter’s commitment to each other and their family.

Friefeld is the ALPLM’s Midwest Studies Historian.

To read more about New Philadelphia, see New Philadelphia by Gerald A. McWorter and Kate Williams-McWorter the book on which much of this post is based.

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