Gerald McWorter grew up hearing a story about his great-great-grandfather who he later realized was an under-appreciated figure in American history.
Free Frank McWorter was born into slavery, but he came to buy his freedom in 1819. Then in 1836, he became the first Black person to legally plan a community in the U.S. He founded the abolitionist town of New Philadelphia in western Illinois — a free state.
The town no longer exists, but the National Park Service has completed a study considering the site for entry into the National Park System.
The story of Free Frank’s life follows one man’s constant pursuit of liberty for himself, his family and his community, says McWorter, who also goes by Abdul Alkalimat.
His great-great-grandfather convinced his slave holder to let him hire out his own time. Because of the various enterprises he was associated with, Free Frank was able to save money and eventually purchase his pregnant wife, who was enslaved on a nearby plantation. Free Frank didn’t want his next child born into slavery, McWorter says.
"A new city of brotherly love.”Gerald McWorter
Sight unseen, he purchased 80 acres in Pike County, Illinois, and moved his loved ones from Kentucky to what he called New Philadelphia, McWorter says.
After selling lots to others looking to join the town, Free Frank bought 16 more family members out of slavery. He left additional money after his death in 1854 so relatives could continue to buy back loved ones, McWorter says.
The town, positioned only 20 miles from a slave market in Hannibal, Missouri, was named New Philadelphia after the strong abolitionist movement happening in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the time. McWorter says his great-great-grandfather wanted to create “a new city of brotherly love.”
New Philadelphia was a refuge for freedom seekers heading north. Many would swim across the Mississippi River to get to the small town. Free Frank’s community would eventually become a station on the Underground Railroad.
One family in particular, McWorter says, also came to New Philadelphia after buying family members out of slavery. The women of the Walker family married men from the McWorter family, forming a union, he says.
The rural town had a post office, a blacksmith’s shop, a church that doubled as a school, a hotel and to McWorter’s surprise, two cobblers.
“What's interesting is that we grew up with the oral history that freedom seekers could get to New Philadelphia and get a pair of shoes and a horse, and those McWorter boys would help you get to Canada. So that's a story we grew up with,” he says. “And as it turns out, there were archaeological digs sponsored by the National Science Foundation that actually discovered there were two cobblers in the town — and there weren't that many feet in the town to require two shoemakers. So it tended to corroborate the story that we grew up with.”
The integrated town had Black residents and white residents intermingling on the farm, in church and at school. While other little towns in the area have documented incidents of racial violence, McWorter says he hasn’t found any evidence of such violence occurring in New Philadelphia.
Sons of New Philadelphia went to fight in the Civil War, he says, even though they were separated from white military units, he says.
“We often say that every way you could get to freedom, the struggle took place in New Philadelphia — whether it was the Underground Railroad, whether it was fighting in the Civil War,” he says.
New Philadelphia’s townspeople dispersed from the area in the years following Free Frank’s death for several reasons, he says. The booming construction of the transcontinental railroad bumped the tracks north, going around the town, instead of following a straight line. Whether or not the railroad diversion was intentional is still unknown, he adds.
But the main reason was the need for jobs, he says. People tended to migrate where work was available, including his own ancestors.
“In our family, Chicago was a destination for my father, who became a steelworker, my uncle who became a bus driver, and my aunt who became an elementary school teacher,” he says.
New Philadelphia is now a national historic landmark. Nearly two centuries later, McWorter says we can still learn about building community and achieving freedom from the dedication of his great-great-grandfather.
“If New Philadelphia was able to gather people together, Blacks and whites, in fighting and struggling for freedom in every conceivable way you could,” he says, “then it seems to me that would be an inspirational reference point for people to resist this white supremacy that unfortunately plagues the land today.”
This segment aired on February 25, 2021.