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Earliest U.S. Black-Founded Town

Earliest U.S. Black-Founded Town
Designated National Historic Site

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, “Free Frank” McWorter, 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 20th 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. McWorter laid out the community and filed his plan with Pike County, Ill., 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. By the 1930s, all signs of the town had disappeared.

“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.”
Says Shackel: “Placement on the National Register of Historic Places will entitle the community to seek federal development funds and turn the site into a historic destination. 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, Ill., about six miles from the town of Barry. The research is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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