Archaeologists Unearthing Earliest Incorporated Black Town
COLLEGE PARK, Md.
In a 42-acre field of prairie grass, an archeological team has begun to uncover the remains of a pre-Civil War experiment in integration. New Philadelphia, Ill., the earliest known U.S. town incorporated by an African American, survived for nearly a century as a racially mixed community, and is now the site of a major archaeological dig. The ultimate goal is to create a national historic site where the town once stood.
“Under these fields we hope to find clues about how these people lived and survived in a racist society on the Illinois frontier,” says Dr. Paul A. Shackel, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Heritage Resource Studies and lead archaeologist on the New Philadelphia project. “Their experiences as an integrated community need to be part of our national memory.”
Shackel serves as the project’s archeological consultant in association with the University of Illinois, Illinois State Museum and the nonprofit New Philadelphia Association.
A former slave, Frank McWorter incorporated the town in 1836, selling lots to Whites and Blacks. It flourished on the Illinois frontier, just miles from the Mississippi River’s slave trade. 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 1950s all signs of the town disappeared. It was plowed over as if it never existed.
Over the past two years, Shackel and his team have recovered over 10,000 artifacts — including items unexpected in a frontier location, such as porcelain dolls and fine china. This summer the team has unearthed foundations, storage cellars and pits related to the town’s early settlement, providing further clues to the settlers’ lifestyles. Students from around the country are conducting the excavations as part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduate programs. The project is slated to continue through 2006.
This summer’s excavations ran through June, and in July the students will process the artifacts at the Illinois State Museum.
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