Story of Frank McWorter to be told as part of New Philadelphia becoming 424th national park


This is an overview of the former village of New Philadelphia, Ill. The village site is a significant archaeological site and has been designated a National Historic Landmark. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The story of the first free Black man to found an American town has moved a step closer to history books now that New Philadelphia in Pike County has become the 424th national park.

“The designation of New Philadelphia National Historic Site ensures that Frank McWorter’s struggle, sacrifices and legacy will never be forgotten,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said in a release. 

McWorter was an enterprising enslaved man who purchased freedom for his pregnant wife, Lucy, and then his own, by manufacturing and selling a component of gunpowder and fertilizer in Kentucky. Known as Free Frank, he moved his family to the state of Illinois. He acquired 600 acres of farmland just outside Barry, which he sold to white and Black Americans forming an interracial community. It grew to about 160 people by 1865 and later dissolved in 1880. 

With profits from land sales, he bought the freedom of 16 other family members. He also established the community as a stop on the Underground Railroad, working to free other enslaved persons.

The McWorter family and members of the New Philadelphia Association, founded in 1996 by politically connected farmer, Philip Bradshaw, have worked tirelessly over decades to get Free Frank’s contributions recognized.

An overflowing crowd attended a Black History lecture about New Philadelphia at the Quincy Public Library earlier this month.

Many in the crowd had never heard of New Philadelphia before. Mark Philpot, chair of the Quincy Human Rights Commission, suggested the information needs to get into local schools. 

Fifth-generation descendant Gerald McWorter, professor emeritus at University of Illinois and author of multiple books on Black studies, agrees. He says a publishing company needs to get Free Frank’s story into school curriculums.

This seems particularly important in areas such as Adams and Pike County, which are about 90 percent white.

“We need to prepare our children to function in the great big world,” Philpot said.

Philpot is meeting with education officials to encourage them to tell the story of New Philadelphia to schoolchildren. 

McWorter is confident New Philadelphia’s new status will preserve Free Frank’s place in history.  When the family and board members met with park officials, they stated, “We are in the forever business.”

Sitting with the crowd at the library event was another member of the fifth generation, Sandra McWorter Marsh, who lives in Barry.

“I’m just glad we’re still alive so we can help (park officials) interpret New Philadelphia,” she said.

Michael Ward, a deputy regional director with the Park Service, will meet with New Philadelphia board members Feb. 28 where the board will sign a letter of intent to donate the land it owns to the park.

“We will do whatever it takes to grow understanding of the site and build awareness,” said Ward.

Christine Ledbetter is the former senior arts editor at The Washington Post and a journalist living in Pike County.

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