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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Land of Racial Harmony?

New Philadelphia, Ill., settled by a freed slave, was seen as a colorblind utopia. Amid doubts, town descendants want the truth unearthed.

July 14, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

"It was clear that this was a community grass-roots project, which is unusual in archeology," said Christopher Fennell, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign assistant professor of anthropology who is working on the dig. "Normally, the public doesn't get this involved. Who comes out to walk through a plowed field, looking for shards of glass?"

In the fall of 2002, Shackel and fellow project leader Terrance Martin of the Illinois State Museum joined other scientists at the 42-acre site, about six miles east of Barry. A farmer plowed the field, turning over the top foot of earth. Then the scientists and volunteers from the New Philadelphia Assn. walked across the land, looking to see whether enough artifacts could be found to warrant further digging.

They planted colorful plastic flags, about the size of greeting cards, at spots where objects were found on the surface: pieces of dish ware, nails and window glass clustered together, indicating sections of homes and businesses. By the time they were finished, more than 7,000 flags speckled the site, making the prairie look like a field of flowers.

"We hoped we'd find maybe a third that many," Shackel said. "After we got a grant from the National Science Foundation, we went back, selected a few locations that appeared most promising and started digging."

The depth of the discoveries told the scientists that residents lived here at least 150 years ago. Antique buttons carved out of bone and an elephant-shaped compass -- no bigger than an eraser head -- teased their imagination.

Chunks of ceramic plates were excavated from a home built by Squire McWorter, Free Frank's son. Squire was known to have guided runaway slaves to Canada. Could the plates have been used to feed slaves in hiding?

Scientists also uncovered a Civil War button from a Union soldier's uniform. Did the family house white soldiers from the North?

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Juliet E.K. Walker, a McWorter descendant, grew up listening to stories of frontier life in New Philadelphia and tales about her great-great-grandfather's accomplishments. In the 1980s, while studying her heritage as part of her doctoral research, Walker documented the history and published it as a book, "Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier."

In Walker's eyes, and according to her findings, racial harmony did not exist in New Philadelphia.

"It's absurd, and there's no evidence to back up the claim," said Walker, 65, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. "What is significant, when you look at Free Frank's whole life, is how this individual with no legal rights was able to utilize and manipulate law for his own advantage."

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.

White families and land speculators came from the East, looking to take advantage of the economic opportunities of the frontier. So did freed blacks, and at least one biracial couple. By 1865, the town had become a minor commercial hub, with 112 white and 48 black or mixed-race residents, and more than half a dozen craftsmen including a shoemaker, a cabinetmaker and a wheelwright.

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.

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