Book tells story of integrated Illinois town founded by former slave

Kate Williams-McWorter and Gerald McWorter wrote about the integrated town founded by Gerald McWorter’s great-great-grandfather, Frank McWorter, who was born into slavery. Their book “New Philadelphia” tells how Frank McWorter bought his freedom and that of his family, and founded the western Illinois town, which became a station on the Underground Railroad. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Gerald McWorter grew up hearing stories about the family patriarch who bought his way out of slavery and founded the town of New Philadelphia in western Illinois – the first known U.S. town platted and legally registered by a black man.

When McWorter visited the family farm, he saw the false wall in the dirt basement, and he heard about the cave in a creek bed near the town – places where freedom seekers would hide. He heard how his family would burn rags in front of the house to mask the scent of people running to escape slavery, foiling the efforts of trackers.

McWorter (also known as Abdul Alkalimat), a professor emeritus of information sciences and African American studies, and his wife, Kate Williams-McWorter, a professor of information sciences, have written a book telling the story of the town founded by McWorter’s great-great-grandfather, Frank McWorter. “New Philadelphia” was published in September by Path Press and is available through the New Philadelphia Association.

The book is a freedom story, the authors said.

“The anti-slavery struggle is sometimes seen as something benevolent white people did,” Williams-McWorter said. “Between Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, Springfield and Hannibal, is this little town that contributed. It really diversifies the freedom struggle. It wasn’t just white people.”

A bust of Frank McWorter, copies of which appear in the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy Gerald McWorter and Kate Williams-McWorter

The book tells of Frank McWorter, who was enslaved on a farm in Kentucky. He was able to hire himself out for work while a slave, and he made money mining the saltpeter needed for gunpowder during the War of 1812. McWorter bought his wife’s freedom, then his own, and then that of the four of his seven children who were born into slavery.

He traded for land in Pike County in western Illinois, between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, and he platted and registered the town of New Philadelphia in 1836. He sold lots to free black families and white abolitionists, and he used the money to buy the freedom of more family members. In all, he bought the freedom of 16 people, some of them his grandchildren whose freedom was purchased after his death using the money he accumulated.

New Philadelphia became a station on the Underground Railroad. The oral histories McWorter heard while growing up related what freedom seekers were told about New Philadelphia: “If you got to New Philadelphia, you could get shoes, you could get a horse and one of the McWorter boys would help you get to Canada,” he said.

McWorter and Williams-McWorter researched letters written by family members and other residents, court documents, census data and newspaper accounts to learn more about the town. They found that New Philadelphia had a blacksmith and two cobblers, corroborating the McWorter family stories.

They also found a treasure trove of letters written by Clarissa Shipman, who lived on a neighboring farm to the McWorters. The authors went to Hawaii to visit a Shipman descendant and look at more than 1,000 letters Shipman wrote about the town and its residents.

“In every letter, she talks about the McWorters and she talks about what’s happening in New Philadelphia,” Williams-McWorter said. “Her sympathies for freedom were really evident. She celebrates the fight back against the occasional pro-slavery person in the environs. She talks about everyone using sorghum as a sweetener, and that everyone is very happy to be free of blood-stained sugar.”

In the McWorter family archives, they found anti-slavery pamphlets that had been circulated through the town, with Shipman’s handwriting on them.

Frank McWorter was known as “Free Frank” after he bought his way out of slavery, until he had a law passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 1837 to change his name to Frank McWorter.

As he learned about his ancestor, Gerald McWorter tried to imagine what he was like.

“I wanted him to be militant,” he said. “There was an inherent militancy in being able to stand up to what was happening in the country at that time.”

Frank McWorter was also a diplomat – well-liked and able to obtain support for his projects.

A family reunion of the McWorter family at New Philadelphia in the 1910s.
Courtesy Gerald McWorter and Kate Williams-McWorter

Editor’s notes: To reach Kate Williams-McWorter, email katewill@illinois.edu. To reach Gerald McWorter, email mcworter@illinois.edu.

Source: Illinois NEWS BUREAU

 

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Book tells story of integrated Illinois town founded by former slave
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Book tells story of integrated Illinois town founded by former slave
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Gerald McWorter grew up hearing stories about the family patriarch who bought his way out of slavery and founded the town of New Philadelphia in western Illinois – the first known U.S. town platted and legally registered by a black man.