First Black Town to Be Declared on National Register of Historic Places

The site of the first U.S. town founded by an African American, New Philadelphia, Ill., has been added to the National Register of Historic Places - the nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. A former slave founded New Philadelphia in 1836 as a bi-racial community 25 miles from the slave trade along the Mississippi River. The community survived into the twentieth century, and an archaeological team is excavating in the 42-acre field where the town once stood.

"New Philadelphia deserves to be part of our national memory, and adding it to the National Register gives the site the federal stamp of approval," says Paul Shackel, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Heritage Resource Studies and the archaeologist supervising the excavation. "For a former slave to create a bi-racial community before the Civil War and have it take root is remarkable. When we complete the project, we hope to have a better sense of how well they were able to make the experiment work."

Shackel serves as the project's archaeological consultant in association with the University of Illinois, the Illinois State Museum and the non-profit New Philadelphia Association. He led the effort to get the site added to the National Register.

The town's founder, "Free Frank" McWorter, laid out the community and filed his plan with Pike County, Illinois officials in 1836, selling lots to both whites and blacks. With the profits, McWorter bought freedom for members of his family. After the Civil War, the railroad was routed around the town, isolating the community economically. Gradually, by the 1930s, all signs of the town disappeared. It was plowed over as if it never existed.

"This is a major step forward," says Gerald McWorter, director of Africana Studies at the University of Toledo and a fifth-generation descendant of the town's founder. "It took a lot of energy on my family's part to keep Frank McWorter's memory alive and to have his gravesite placed on the National Register, but the community deserves that same kind of recognition. I like to think of New Philadelphia as an abolitionist community next door to Missouri, a slave state. It's an iconic example of the freedom impulse. The money was used to buy freedom for African Americans, and the name itself is an ideological statement."

Using a variety of geophysical imaging technologies, Shackel's team has mapped out the remains of the town, hidden about a foot-and-a-half below the surface - the depth of plowed earth.
Archaeological work will resume at the site next spring.

"We're uncovering the footprint of the town including some homes that no one knew existed - the oldest records we have showed empty lots in those spots," Shackel says. "Also, we located the foundation for the home of Frank McWorter's son, Squire. All this work has given us a good idea of what the town looked like early on and after the Civil War."

Among the thousands of artifacts recovered so far are some amenities not usually recognized as being found on the Illinois frontier prior to the Civil War, such as British ceramic dishes.
"It's clear that very early in the town's existence the residents were well connected with regional and national markets," he says.
The team also discovered evidence of pieces from a popular African game, Mancala.

Illinois' governor and U.S. senators supported the application for inclusion in the National Register. A state history advisory board and federal officials reviewed and approved the application. "By including this site on the National Register, we strive to raise the visibility of New Philadelphia and make it part of our national public memory," wrote Illinois U.S. Senator Barak Obama in a statement in support of the application.

"Placement on the National Register of Historic Places will entitle the community to seek federal development funds and turn the site into an historic destination," Shackel says. "Once the archaeological work is completed, we hope to have enough evidence to go to the next step and seek National Landmark status for the site."

The New Philadelphia site is located in Pike County, Illinois about six miles from the town of Barry. The research is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Juliet E.K. Walker, Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and Founder and Executive Director of the Free Frank New Philadelphia Historic Preservation Foundation, unveiled her plans to recreate the first black town listed on the National Register of Historic Places, New Philadelphia, Ill., founded by an African American, her great-great-grandfather Free Frank McWorter (1777-1854).
Dr. Walker, a University of Chicago Ph.D. who did post-doctoral work at the Harvard University DuBois Institute, is recognized as the leading authority on Black American Business History. She has written the only scholarly documented study of Free Frank and New Philadelphia in her book, "Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier" (1983, 1995). As Dr. Jane Goodall is the leading researcher on primates, Dr. Walker is the leading authority on Free Frank and New Philadelphia, Ill.

Dr. Walker also announced the launch of the new websites of the Free Frank New Philadelphia Historic Preservation Foundation, and, which includes an interactive frontier museum where visitors will "learn by living history."

Professor Walker, who successfully had Free Frank's gravesite listed in The National Register of Historic Places in 1990, also announced The Free Frank Cemetery Restoration Project.

In 1990, to commemorate Free Frank's gravesite listing in the National Register of Historic Places, Dr. Walker, then a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana, retraced Free Frank's route from Kentucky, where he lived as both a slave and free black from 1795-1830, to Pike County, Ill., by walking 400 miles.

This is an exciting year for Dr. Juliet E.K. Walker, who also announced that her Foundation is producing a documentary on the life and history of Free Frank and New Philadelphia.

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Natalie Armistead - 8/26/2005

As current landowners of the New Philadelphia site I have to thank all that have been involved with this project. We are thrilled to have this Historic site recognized. The New Philadelphlia Association is the organization that spearheaded this effort. Dr. Walker's work was an inspiration to many behind this project as were works by Grace Matteson and Helen McWorter Simpson. The University of Illinois, Dr. Chris Fennell and the University of Maryland, Dr. Paul Shackel and the Illinois State Museum, Dr. Terry Martin as well as countless other volunteers deserve our thanks. The McWorter Family have been wonderfully supportive.

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