NEW PHILADELPHIA, MAIN PAGE - AHGP
A building - 1800s - New Philadelphia, Illinois
The New Philadelphia town site is the original site of the now-vanished town of New Philadelphia, Illinois. It is located near the city of Barry, in Pike County, Illinois. It was the first town in the United States founded by an African-American called Free Frank McWorter, a former slave who purchased his freedom.
Free Frank McWorter moved to Illinois in 1830 with his family and founded a town where he thought it would benefit from the commerce envisioned along the planned Illinois and Michigan Canal. The original town plan consisted of 144 lots in a 12 x 12 square, including 22 crisscrossing named streets. McWorter officially registered his town with government authorities and sold the lots. The town was integrated, albeit with typical 19th Century segregated facilities, including cemeteries. McWorter became mayor of New Philadelphia, and lived there for the remained of his life, except for a brief visit to South Carolina to purchase freedom for much of the remainder of his family.
Frank McWorter died in 1854, before the Civil War, New Philadelphia, became one of the stops alongside the Underground Railroad for shepherding escaped slaves to Canada. With emancipation, more townspeople arrived in New Philadelphia, peaking at close to 200 shortly after 1865. Later researchers have counted 120 separate surnames in New Philadelphia.
In 1869, the Hannibal and Naples Railroad bypassed the town on the north, encouraging transit and commerce to move to nearby Barry. New Philadelphia rapidly declined in population thereafter. A small number of continuing residents turned to farming the former townsite. This was not an unusual fate for United States small towns in the late 1800s.
In 1885 the town was legally dissolved. The site reverted to farmland, which archaelogical studies indicate was inhabited through the 1910s. By the late 20th century, all vestiges of New Philadelphia had vanished, vanished saved fragments of glass and pottery, and traces of the town's gravel streets.
In 1988 Larry and Natalie Armistead bought some of the land of the former town. In 1996 locals founded the New Philadelphia Assocation and approached archaeologists. In 2003 a three-year excavation begun with a $226,500 grant from the National Science Foundation. By 2006, they had survey 14 of 144 lots.
The town site lies about three miles east of Barry, Illinois, very close to Interstate 72. Its exact address is restricted by its listing agency, the National Register of Historic Places, to discourage trespassing and scavenging.
Known as “Free Frank,” McWorter, was a slave for a Kentucky man who allowed him to earn wages in his spare time. He saved, bought a small farm and earned enough money to buy first his wife’s freedom, then his own.
Later, he traded his Kentucky assets for a large parcel of land in western Illinois, where he developed a prosperous farm that enabled him to buy the freedom of his slave-born children and other relatives. He then bought more land and established New Philadelphia, giving free black families a place to buy homes and become independent.
His vision of an integrated community soon attracted whites from around the region – forward-thinking immigrants who very likely shared his dream.
McWorter was born a slave in 1777 in South Carolina. His father, who was white, owned his mother, who was black. As Frank grew older, he helped manage his father's lands in Kentucky and, in his spare time, worked at neighboring farms and mined saltpeter to earn income. When his father died, his half-siblings became his owners.
By the time he turned 42, McWorter had saved enough money to buy farmland in Kentucky, and freedom for himself and his wife, Lucy. But most of his children and grandchildren remained enslaved.
The solution, he believed, was to turn land into cash. He looked westward to Illinois, where the federal government was selling land to military veterans and pioneers. The closest trading post was at least a day's ride away, but it was fertile farmland.
In September of 1830, McWorter bought his first parcel in Illinois. He paid $200 for 160 acres. He and his sons eventually bought 800 acres. Most of the land was farmed.
McWorter and his wife crossed the frontier in a covered wagon and arrived on this remote stretch of prairie, about 83 miles west of Springfield, Ill., in the spring of 1831. McWorter began to create his town.
He surveyed the land and platted 144 lots, then persuaded authorities to file the paperwork for him with local courts. (McWorter was illiterate. He signed his name in the county deed books with an X.) Naming the town after Philadelphia, a center of the antislavery movement, McWorter put the lots up for sale, to "apply the proceeds of the Sales for the purchase of his family yet remaining as Slaves," according to court documents from the time.
From 1837, until his death in 1854, he sold the acreage to anyone -- regardless of skin color -- who wanted it.
From the land sales, crops raised on his farm and other enterprises, McWorter earned about $14,000, or more than $300,000 in today's currency, during the last four decades of his life. It was enough to buy 15 family members' freedom.
New Philadelphia's downfall began in 1869, descendants and historians agree, when a local railroad line bypassed the town about a mile to the north. People gradually moved to towns closer to the railways. By the early 1900s, prairie grass had reclaimed the land.
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