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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

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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For the last three summers, as the scientists dig, the McWorter clan has hosted a New Philadelphia reunion. On a recent weekend, nearly three dozen local residents and town descendants gathered at a farmhouse. Over slices of freshly baked blueberry pie and bowls of homemade ice cream, they studied photocopies of land deeds and family Bibles with names and family trees jotted down.

"There's no evidence to say folks didn't get along. Why would whites buy land in and move to New Philadelphia, if they had a problem supporting and living with freed slaves?" said Gerald McWorter, 63, Sandra's brother.

"Was it utopia? Probably not," said Gerald, director of Africana studies at the University of Toledo, Ohio. "Was it filled with conflict? No."

Walker disagreed.

"There were blacks on the frontier. There were whites on the frontier. To say these people were happily living side by side is like saying that slaves were happy on the plantation," she said after the gathering.

Some tantalizing clues come from photographs descendants have found on their own. Formal portraits depict black or white families posed stiffly in their best suits and dresses. One photograph shows black and white children gathered together on the front porch of a school.

Philip Bradshaw, president of the New Philadelphia Assn., wondered: "Did they study together? Play together? Become friends?"

While searching for answers to the New Philadelphia puzzle, descendants say, they have found something just as important along the way: a bond among relative strangers, connected by forgotten bloodlines and a fascination with the past.

When 13-year-old Mariah Dove began asking questions about her family roots, her paternal grandmother, Karen Wall, turned to the Internet. The search led them to New Philadelphia: Mariah's mother is a descendant of Free Frank's granddaughter Hiley, and the town's blacksmith, Alexander Clark. Wall also found a trunk in a relative's home in Newton, Kan., full of pictures and family Bibles from the McWorters and Clarks.

Wall wrote letters and e-mails to the project researchers about her find, including one that reached Sandra McWorter. Sandra contacted Wall and invited the Kansas pair to visit New Philadelphia.

Wall, who is white, was welcomed by the McWorters even though she is connected to the town only by marriage.

"These are our people. This is our homecoming," McWorter said. "We're all part of the same heritage and we all want the same thing -- to preserve New Philadelphia."

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