Founded in 1836, predating such historical black towns as Rosewood, Florida and Greenwood, Oklahoma, New Philadelphia, Illinois in Pike County occupies an important spot in both Illinois and national history. New Philadelphia is an American tale. It is full of all the contradictions that make our nation’s history so complex, traversing a spectrum that ranges from maddening to joyful.
To tell the story of New Philadelphia it is important to know its founder, “Free Frank” McWorter. Born in 1777 during the early days of the American Revolution, to a slave woman named Juno and her owner George McWhorter. Around the time Frank was 18 his owner/father was sent to the Kentucky Frontier. George McWhorter then expanded his land holdings in Kentucky and left Frank to manage the land. It was during his Kentucky years that he met and married Lucy, a slave from a neighboring plantation in 1799. They had 4 children while enslaved: Sallie, Judy, Frank Jr. and Solomon. In 1817, two years after the death of George McWhorter, Frank purchased the freedom of his wife and their fifth unborn child. It cost 800 dollars ($11,669 today). Two years later Frank bought his freedom from the McWhorter family for the same price. While free they had three children: Squire, Commodore, and Lucy Ann.
Frank secured the funds for purchasing his families through the proceeds made from his saltpeter mine (saltpeter, a component of gunpowder). One of Frank’s clients? The United States Military. Frank gained his freedom and remained in Pulaski County, Kentucky for another 20 years, working to secure the freedom of his other still enslaved children.In 1829, Frank purchased his son Frank Jr., traded his saltpeter operation for 160 acres of land (sight unseen) in Pike County, Illinois and set out.
Given the tendency for Free Blacks to be re-enslaved and their papers burned, the McWorters would likely not have used major roads, thus making a longer trip. Frank and his family arrived in Illinois during the Winter of Deep Snow (which will be another entry). The weather forced an unexpected layover in Greene County. In the Spring of 1831, they arrived in Hadley Township, as its first settlers.
New Philadelphia represents the vision of Free Frank and the strength of his conviction, as the “earliest known town platted, founded, and registered” by a black man (New Philadelphia: An Archaeology of Race in the Heartland by Paul A. Shackel). It was founded in 1836. At its height (around 1860) the town included a grocery, two schools, more than 150 residents (both Black and White), a doctor, a blacksmith, several merchants, a carpenter, shoemakers, and a preacher along with prospects of a rail line coming to town. New Philadelphia was a growing and prosperous town.
The decline of the town of New Philadelphia was gradual. In 1840, business interests in Pike County conspired to route a major road away from the settlement. This had the effect of reducing the economic viability of the town. In 1869, the railroad that could have run through or near the town lay miles away. The land selected was much less suitable than New Philadelphia (New Philadelphia: An Archaeology of Race in the Heartland by Paul A. Shackel). New Philadelphia, impaired by a lack of political power, population migration to cities and western land, and the re-routing of major infrastructure developments continued to decline until it was no more.
Today, New Philadelphia is a National Historic Landmark and archeological dig site. On January 16, 2009 following an almost five year campaign, the New Philadelphia site is gained landmark status. Excavation has been ongoing at the site since 2003.
New Philadelphia: An Archaeology of Race in the Heartland (2011) by Paul A. Shackel
Time Team America: New Philadelphia, IL (2009)
“Free Frank” McWorter and the “Ghost Town” of New Philadelphia Pike County, Illinois (1964) By Pike County Historical Society.