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Integrated Town Predating Civil War Earns Landmark Status

January 23, 2009

A remote western Illinois field could someday yield tourists instead of crops, adding to the state’s legacy of racial equality that already includes Abraham Lincoln and the nation’s first black president.

Once an integrated town that flourished decades before the Civil War broke the grip of slavery, the lost community’s potential as a heritage attraction got a boost last week when it was designated a National Historic Landmark by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne.

Landmark status puts New Philadelphia among a select group of sites deemed vital in interpreting the nation’s heritage and history. While more than 80,000 sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, fewer than 2,500 have been named landmarks.

Achieving the nation’s top historic designation should aid fundraising efforts to continue archaeological research of the now-buried town and could ultimately help make New Philadelphia a popular historic destination, said Christopher Fennell, a University of Illinois archaeologist and principal investigator for an ongoing dig on the 42-acre site near Barry, about 85 miles northeast of St. Louis.

“The landmark designation doesn’t provide funding in itself, but makes it more likely,” Fennell said. “It provides the highest historic recognition, which can be used to raise funds that will conserve the property and help develop plans to present it to the public.”

Five years of excavations have unearthed more than 85,000 artifacts and remains of 14 buildings from New Philadelphia, the first known U.S. town planned and legally registered by a black man.

Founded in 1836 by freed slave Frank McWorter, the frontier town nestled between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers grew to about 160 people ““ a third black and two-thirds white ““ before it began to slowly fade away when it was bypassed by the railroad in 1869.

Researchers say their findings reveal a town that was ahead of its time, with blacks and whites living side-by-side and no signs of racial violence, despite ethnic tensions that engulfed the era and a major slave trading post just 25 miles away in Hannibal, Mo.

Known as “Free Frank,” McWorter was enslaved by a Kentucky man who allowed him to earn wages in his spare time. He used the money to buy his freedom as well as his family’s, and developed a prosperous Illinois farm that enabled him to buy enough land to establish New Philadelphia.

His new town gave free black families a place to build homes and become independent, and his vision of an integrated community soon attracted whites who shared his dream.

Abdul Alkalimat, a U. of I. African-American studies professor and great-great-great grandson of McWorter, says the town’s story offers lessons that still resonate.

“If New Philadelphia is possible, then America is possible,” he said. “It’s a story of average, everyday people ““ not Harvard bluebloods or people of power. It is rooted in people fighting for their families and economic security. In the end, it really shows that anything is possible.”

Archaeological work at the site built on historical research into McWorter’s life by Juliet Walker, McWorter’s great-great-great granddaughter and a former U. of I. history professor who now is at the University of Texas.

Walker’s book, “Free Frank,” was published by the University of Kentucky Press.

Alkalimat says the timing of New Philadelphia’s landmark status is fitting, with attention focused on Barack Obama’s historic rise to the presidency and this year’s celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

“It’s a wonderful convergence,” he said. “New Philadelphia is part of the foundation of those bright lights on which Obama and Lincoln now stand.”

Fennell says a letter of support from Obama was likely a key in earning landmark status for New Philadelphia, along with archaeological finds from ongoing research involving the U. of I., the Illinois State Museum, DePaul University and the University of Maryland.

“Obama’s letter was read at a hearing just days before the election,” Fennell said. “Everyone was astounded that his office had that degree of focus when they were in 100 percent campaign mode with the election just around the corner.”

On the Net:

  • View an audio slide show about the archaeological work done at New Philadelphia, a lost western Illinois town where blacks and whites lived together in peace and freedom a quarter of a century before the Civil War broke the grip of slavery.
  • University of Illinois